WILBERFORCE — It was the spirit of the phoenix and resurrection that was present at Wilberforce University Tuesday for the school’s 158th Founders’ Day Convocation.
There is also the celebration of a new leader — Dr. Wilma Mishoe, who has been leading the university as a member of the Board of Trustees’ Presidential Transition Team, was announced as Interim President.
The local university that has been undergoing problems, from dropping enrollment to an audit by the Department of Education’s Office of the Inspector General for an audit of financial management, specifically with the management of Title IV funding, a situation the university worked with auditors to correct.
But now, the theme is to rebuild the university into what the day’s keynote speaker, Rep. Tracy Maxwell Heard, the Minority Leader of the Ohio House of Representatives, said, “This is still a great institution. It is time for a resurrection of souls, a resurrection of minds and a resurrection of the history of this university… we can resurrect the people with the sheer force of wills.”
Along with celebrating the rebirth of the school, Dr. Mishoe’s announcement was a surprise to some.
During her speech, Rep. Heard referred to Dr. Mishoe as the new president. Afterward, Dr. Derek H. Anderson, a board member and another member of the Presidential Transition Team, came to the microphone to state that, basically, the cat was out of the bag. Mishoe had resigned her position with the Board of Trustees to become the interim president.
“The board had decided it was tired of running the university,” he said.
He added the board felt a president to run the university and the board would be in charge of the president.
Eddie D. Scott, a senior Political Science major and a member of the student government at Wilberforce University, said he felt the future of the school is bright.
“I believe so,” he said. “But nothing happens over night. This will take work. There were some 1,500 students in 2007-2008. Now there are a lot fewer here.”
Scott said the student government is working with the trustees in an effort to make things better at the university.
“We will attend meetings and we will go over the budget for the students,” he said. “If the budget is set for more students than we have, you are starting out with a deficit.
“We are working to make the brand a positive brand, but when there’s been so much negative, it’s hard to see the positive. We need to put us on a positive plan.”
Scott said the university is undergoing a whole new make over.
Re. Dr. Floyd W. Alexander, chair of the Presidential Transition Team, agreed with Scott that the university will have work ahead.
“It’s a long road,” he said. “But we have plans in place to help in fund raising. We are connecting with all the constituency so we can accomplish great things.”
He added that Dr. Mishoe’s place as interim president will be a plus, too.
“Dr. Mishoe has been working on the team with us and has been here working every day,” Alexander said. “She’s doing great things working on reviving spirits at this university.”
During the keynote address, Heard reflected on how the university has resurrected itself time and again.
“It was started in 1856 in an abolitionist community and African Americans thrived,” she said. “The college closed in 1862 when there were no funds.
“But it was resurrected when Bishop Daniel Payne in 1863 when the African Methodist Episcopal Church bought the school.”
She talked of the 1865 arson fire that damaged buildings but leaders such as Salmon P. Chase, Chief Justice of the U. S. Supreme Court and Dr. Charles Avery of Pittsburgh made donations, and the U. S. Congress approved a $25,000 grant to bring the school literally back from the ashes like a phoenix.
The old campus of the university was again destroyed in the 1974 tornado.
“This institution has brought great minds here,” Heard said. “Brought great teaches from around the world such as W. E. B. Dubois.”
Heard said the recent challenges have put Wilberforce “in the fire” again.
“Because of unintended consequences in working to be Americans, we have forgot how to be African Americans,” Heard said. “We’ve forgotten those places and communities we’ve built.
“But the board is determined to keep this university going, to continue the opportunity to graduate many more great minds.”
Heard said each individual needs to latch on to their vision.
“We need every single one of us (to have the vision),” she said. “What is our debt to a legacy that will not die? What will we contribute to protect and restore it? This school started as a place to educate teachers. Education is more important now than ever.
“We fought over a century on the words ‘knowledge’ and ‘education’. There must be places beyond books to show our younger generation that they walk in the shadow of kings. This is one of those places.
“For Wilberforce, it is resurrection time again,” she added, specifically pointing to a new president, a committed board of trustees, and an equally committed student body.
“We can’t wait for the state to recognize the historic value of this place of learning,” Heard said. “I’m with the state, believe me, I know. It’ is how we regard our past that leas to our present.”
She said that today’s young African American society needs to regain its vision.
“A people must have a vision or they perish. Our children are perishing.”
William Duffield can be reached at 937-372-4444 ext. 133 or on Twitter @WilliamDuffield