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School's 22nd President discusses Wilberforce University's rich past and optimistic future

WU campus aerial.jpg
Courtesy of Wilberforce University
An aerial view of Wilberforce University, the oldest private HBCU founded by people of African descent.

Wilberforce University is the first Black-owned and operated college in the United States. It was founded when slavery was still legal. The school will celebrate the 166th graduating class on Saturday. WYSO’s Mike Frazier spoke with Wilberforce University President, Dr. Elfred Anthony Pinkard about the school’s rich history, how it overcame recent financial and accreditation challenges, and his message to the class of ‘22.

What does Wilberforce mean to you?

"Well, it occupies such an incredible space in terms of African-American history, but also in the history of higher education in this nation. I mean, you must recognize that in 1856, as I've noted, most people of African descent were enslaved in the American South. And yet there was this bold and visionary idea among well-meaning Black people and well-meaning white people. And and Wilberforce came to being as a result of that. And so it has occupied this space for a number of years."

This mid-nineteenth century print is a bird's-eye view of the buildings of the original Wilberforce University, a historically Black university founded in Xenia, Ohio in1856. A tornado in 1974 destroyed the original structures. The university was named after the 18th century abolitionist William Wilberforce.
Library of Congress
A mid 19th century bird's-eye view of the buildings of the original Wilberforce University, a historically Black university founded in Xenia, Ohio in1856. A tornado in 1974 destroyed the original structures. The university was named after the 18th century abolitionist William Wilberforce.

"We have an illustrious alums, people like William Julius Wilson, who was and is an astounding sociologist, was a Harvard University professor, which is the most honorific position that an academic can hold. W.E.B. Dubois, who is certainly one of the most outstanding intellectuals in American history, who was the first African-American to earn a degree at Harvard University, left Harvard to come to take his first academic position at Wilberforce University. Frederick Douglass was on the university's board. Bayard Rustin who is viewed as the intellectual architect behind the modern civil rights movement, was a student here at Wilberforce. So it goes on and o n in terms of the role that this institution has played and the intellectual development of this nation, the intellectual development of African-Americans, and its role as a social change agent and a place where really exciting ideas took root and began and flowered and and began to make a difference in America and in the world, quite frankly."

What does Wilberforce offer that other institutions do not?

"There are two things that we do that I think we do a well. One is and our students, they say this to us, that we give them a small, very nurturing and supportive environment that speaks to their ability to become all that they wish to become. We also have a program in entrepreneurship that we're very excited about, a program that's not offered at many HBCUs or not offered at many small institutions. We have the Mark and Shelly Wilson Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, and we are introducing students to the and entrepreneur mindset. Our students have come to us and have indicated that they are interested in becoming business owners and entrepreneurs. And so we are developing programs to introduce them to the kinds of skills and attitudes that they must have and experiences that they must have so that they can become really successful entrepreneurs."

What has Wilberforce done to ensure that what happened in the past 15 years and in the past couple of years as well doesn't happen again?

"Well, first of all, we've managed our debt. I mean, we no longer have the incredible debt that we had. Let's say even two years ago. And we are very, very careful in terms of the management of our resources. We have put together a very strong retention plan for for students to retain students. It's one thing to bring students into the institution. It's quite another to see them persist to graduation. We now have a robust institution, Advancement Officer's Office, where we have a trained fundraiser who is our vice president for institutional advancement. We now have a trained enrollment management assistant vice president. That is someone who comes to us from that background. And I think and we're putting policies and practices and procedures in place to make us a strong institution that can weather the winds of change and challenge."

What do you want to tell your graduating class of 2022?

"What I say to students, to my graduates, as well as my first few students, to be bold and to recognize their value and their worth, to not allow anyone to devalue them or to ignore them or to marginalize them, recognize that they walk around, as we each do, with the gift of God's grace, the gift of God's talent, and to own their lives, to craft a life to prepare for and craft a life that they wish for themselves to claim it and and to live in it in their own authentic truth."

A chance meeting with a volunteer in a college computer lab in 1987 brought Mike to WYSO. He started filling in for various music shows, and performed various production, news, and on-air activities during the late 1980s and 90s, spinning vinyl and cutting tape before the digital evolution.