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Tensions Increase At Troubled Wilberforce University
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Wilberforce University is the oldest black owned private university in the country. But the 157 year old school near Xenia faces an uncertain future. Students and faculty members worry the university may close if it cannot get more resources to fix the financial and structural problems on campus. The troubles have increased tensions at the university.
Protests have become a regular occurrence on the Wilberforce University campus. Last month about 150 students and teachers picketed and called for the school’s president Patricia Hardaway to resign. Student leader Brandon Harvey organized the protest.
“Those students were protesting, trying to fight for change. I think things have to change now. We have to tear down the dorms, build new ones. We have to spend the money, take the risk,” Harvey says.
Last fall, several hundred students and faculty marched to the administration. Students threatened to withdraw from the school that has seen sharp drops in enrollment and growing financial problems.
The small campus sits alongside a country road, several miles from Xenia. Wilberforce is a private, coed, liberal arts and historically black university, or what’s commonly referred to as an HBCU. The African Methodist Episcopal Church bought it outright after the Civil War.
Today campus buildings show wear and tear. The bookstore is closed and in disrepair. From the outside, dormitory buildings look sturdy. Inside there are a lot of problems.
Wright Hall is closed for students, while Valentine Hall that is attached is open but only a few rooms are occupied because the others have heavy water damage.
A burst water pipe in Jackson Hall forced students living on the second floor to move up to the third.
Even a dormitory built within the past decade has issues. Senior Ran dall Leneau describes one of them.
“There are times when water will actually drip from the upper level to here and as you see the mold will build up in that corner and it makes the paint peel,” says Leneau.
“There’s no magic bullet and that’s what I say to anyone who is looking for a quick fix,” says Wilberforce University President Patricia Hardaway.
She admits the school has its challenges.
“We’re working on moving to raise the funds to renovate those dorms; we demolished one dorm that we would like to use the footprint to build a new one. Those things are not going to happen within a few weeks or a few months,” explains Hardaway.
Hardaway says Wilberforce faces budget problems similar to what other universities face. The school has an annual budget of $16 million. According to tax returns for the fiscal year ending June 2011, Wilberforce ran a half-million dollar operating deficit. 2007 and 2008 tax returns show losses of up to 3 million dollars a year. The school’s total debt stands at $24 million dollars.
“Everyone has to recognize that the economic environment that Wilberforce is facing is not strictly Wilberforce. The entire world is facing the same economic downturn that is impacting everything,” says the university president.
Hardaway says the cost of educating students is much higher than what students pay. This year’s tuition is just over $12,000. That’s about a third of the $30,000 average tuition cost at private schools nationally.
Hardaway says the school has tried to bridge the gap by holding fundraising events and increasing alumni donations and grants. The school gets up to 40% of its funding from the federal government.
Over the past 7 years, Wilberforce’s undergrad student population has dropped dramatically from 800 to about 500.
President of the Wilberforce Faculty Association, Richard Deering blames the decline in students to cuts in core academic programs. Today there are only 17 core programs, down from 37 a few years ago.
“It was as though we were in deep financial difficulty and therefore the university had to cut its majors in half in order to be able to accommodate what was going on at the institution. I think it was a very negative kind of thing,” says Deering.
To save money, the University stopped contributing to employees’ retirement. Employees, including president Hardaway took a pay cut. For Deering, frustration mounts.
“We have had no new regular faculty members at the university since the fall of 08. We have new visiting faculty, we have temporary full-time faculty, adjunct faculty,” says Deering.
The cuts prompted an investigation by the Ohio Attorney General’s office, but the year-long probe found no financial wrongdoing.
But some students say putting band aids on head wounds won’t be enough to attract the students Wilberforce needs.
Senior and Vice President of Student Government, Shenell Dixon.
“We’re the first, the first historically black college, the Wilberforce University, so we should get the support we need to let the students succeed,” says Dixon.
President Hardaway says her fight continues.
There is no knight on a horse that’s coming in anywhere to say here. So we are exploring and following all available opportunities,” insists Hardaway.
But many students and faculty say the school’s problems will not be solved until there’s a new administration.