What’s Holding Back Wilberforce? About $30 Million in Debt

Facility renovation, new degree and training programs, the launch of a new research center and historic grant making in support of its rehabilitation counseling masters program are signs of growth at Wilberforce University.

Stakeholders are responding to the advances. This fall’s incoming class of new students is expected to be among the largest in years at Wilberforce, and the school is one of the target institutions for a student scholarship program developed by iconic entertainer Beyoncè.

But WU’s good news is accompanied by shades of controversy. The Higher Learning Commission (HLC) has placed the institution on accreditation probation last month, citing non-compliance with academic standards, high levels of institutional debt, and lingering issues with internal controls.

Accreditation changes can happen for almost any reason, for issues ranging from the historically persistent to the easily fixable. But those reasons aren’t easy to find. Leaders present and past won’t talk about challenges, which for the private institution aren’t lawfully required to be available in the public domain.

For all of the gains made at Wilberforce since revelations about the school’s cash crisis became public nearly ten years ago, debt and a lack of institutional controls and policies still appear to resonate with accreditors and within the public sphere. And there are some threads which help us to see which issues seem to continually plague Wilberforce, even with new leadership and a solid vision for growth.

Financial, Administrative Challenges

For more than a decade, Wilberforce has been cited by the HLC and the US Department of Education for challenges with money and administrative infrastructure. Placed on accreditation show cause in 2014, the institution rallied to remove the order in less than a year and pledged to update accreditors with new approaches to finance and management, recruitment and student learning outcomes.

But many of the same challenges which prompted HLC officials to nearly remove Wilberforce from its membership of accredited schools are cited in private and public performance evaluation reports.

In June, Wilberforce was among hundreds of institutions listed on the US Department of Education’s ‘Heightened Cash Monitoring’ list, a composite of schools with unfavorable financial indicators in cash reserves, equity and income.

Wilberforce has been on the list since March 2015, and that designation was cited by HLC in its June 2018 notice of probation. Schools like Michigan State University and West Virginia University are also on the list and required to make certain provisions to receive federal financial aid disbursement funds for students.

The federal government doesn’t post details of financial hardship or debts for Title IV institutions, but a 2017 independent audit of the university covering two prior fiscal years shows significant balances including:

In describing Wilberforce’s financial outlook, auditors wrote:

The University will need to raise capital in order to fund its operations. This need may be adversely impacted by: uncertain market conditions, approval by regulatory bodies, and declines in student enrollment. To address its financing requirements, the University will seek financing through debt refinancing, donations and contributions from alumni and other community and business partners, asset sales, and increases in student enrollment.

The outcome of these matters cannot be predicted at this time.

Who is to Blame?

A 2011 New York Post profile of former Wilberforce President Floyd Flake detailed a culture of administrative turnover, bloated salaries and declining enrollment. Flake resigned in 2008 after six years of controversial leadership, marred by accusations of depleting WU’s academic enterprise with programmatic cuts and layoffs.

But the pastor and former federal lawmaker was never implicated or charged with criminal wrongdoing. His successor, Patricia Hardaway, resigned five years later under criticism from faculty and students for her perceived mismanagement of many of the same issues.

Algeania Freeman, Hardaway’s successor who successfully navigated the school’s show cause removal, was the subject of complaints to the National Labor Relations Board following a mandatory sabbatical program.

Herman Felton, who followed Dr. Freeman and recently left the WU presidency to lead Wiley College, faced criticism for cost reduction efforts which included pay decreases, layoffs and furloughs.

New Wilberforce president Elfred A. Pinkard says that unfavorable news about the institution should have little impact on its prospects for progress.

“Resilience and triumph over formidable challenge are in the DNA of Wilberforce University,” says Dr. Pinkard. “We stand proudly on 162 years of existence as this nation’s first private HBCU founded by African- Americans. We will not cower in the face of unflattering news but look defiantly to a bright and vibrant future assured by our rigorous and disciplined approach to enrollment, fundraising and sound fiscal management and stewardship.”

“That is the real story of Wilberforce University in 2018 and beyond. Our sights are planted firmly on our Northstar: The Wilberforce Renaissance: Re-claiming Institutional Prominence.”

Four former presidents in the last eight years of Wilberforce’s 162-year history all faced criticism for trying to solve the riddle of rising costs and decreased interest among black college students – a riddle seemingly impossible to solve and compounded by a cultural enigma unique to higher education and distilled down to HBCUs.

We expect to build confidence by withholding information from the people best positioned and most invested in a comeback story. We tell our students, staff, faculty and alumni not to pay attention to symptoms of frailty, but to focus on our flashes of stability.

We separate the academic prowess, cultural nurturing and racial autonomy that separates HBCUs as best in class institutions from the financial trends and decisions which eat away at these institutional strengths. And when accreditation is lost or doors are shut, no one is the wiser and everyone is significantly less optimistic about all HBCUs; particularly those institutions with similar struggles but yet to close.

Debt is not the exclusive byproduct of malfeasance, ignorance, or ill-intent. Sometimes, industry claims even its best actors. In higher education, sociopolitical factors are just as important as how well a class is taught, or how fast money can be raised.

As long as nine out of every ten black students do not enroll in HBCUs, as long as wealth gaps exist along racial lines, and as long as the average profile of a state or federal lawmaker is a middle-aged white male, HBCUs are vulnerable to casualties, along with the interests they serve.

Board members, presidents, advocates know full well the depth of Wilberforce’s problems, and those at schools in similar circumstances like Saint Augustine’s University, Stillman College, Cheyney University and Bennett College. All of these schools are actively recruiting students, fundraising, building relationships and doing good work for their communities.

All of this work is promoted on the basic principle of people believing that the school may be in trouble, but that’s its not bad enough to think that closure is likely or imminent.

Some are completely aware; it is why the United Negro College Fund worked with the Department of Education to recently offer a six-year loan deferment to several HBCUs facing nearly-insurmountable financial burden. It is why Thurgood Marshall College Fund President Harry Williams recently wrote about the urgency for HBCUs to consider strategic consolidations.

It is why W.E.B. DuBois predicted 60 years ago the demise of black colleges, and why half of the sector is likely to close in roughly the span of a decade; they all know, or knew, that the cultural, financial and industrial trends of higher education would be too much to bear for most institutions.

Most of us have no clue of just how bad it is, or how bad it will soon get. When we get a glimpse of how bad things are, we reject the narratives because we’re not privy to the actual numbers. Until we reverse course on how we define transparency, cultivating trust and building networks of support, the numbers and the narratives surrounding many o four institutions are going to claim them in short order.

Or maybe they won’t. After all, Morris Brown College and Barber-Scotia College, technically, are still open for business.

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