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A New History For Ohio's Historically Black Universities

When Ohio’s only two historically black universities merge services this fall, it’s unlikely they will lose their individuality.

That’s how University of Pennsylvania professor MaryBeth Gasman sees the new arrangement between Wilberforce and Central State University. As an expert on minority-serving institutions, she’s confident Wilberforce will not lose its identity to the larger school.

“If Wilberforce were in stellar financial shape, I wouldn’t think this is a good idea," Gasman says. "But I don’t think maintaining the history and culture will be difficult."

As part of the merger agreement, Wilberforce students will study, eat and live on Central State University’s campus. It will also take over Wilberforce’s information technology and library services, but both schools will remain independent institutions.

Gasman says such arrangements aren't unusual. Barnard College and Columbia University have had a similar situation for decades, she says.

"You have a women’s college and then you have Columbia University and they are affiliated,” she says. “They’re separate institution, but they use some facilities, their students can take classes at the other institutions and they benefit from each other.”

Jamal Akil Marshall graduated from Wilberforce six years ago. He says he and his friends always hung out at Central State anyway.

Central State just had a better looking campus,” he says. “Their facilities were nicer, so if you wanted to play basketball or just hang out on their campus, they would just do that. When we would skateboard, we would go skateboard at Central State."

But the new arrangement seems to primarily benefit Wilberforce, which has been in dire straits for close to 15 years, facing declining revenues and enrollments. The school has had four presidents since 2013.  A year earlier, two-thirds of the students walked off campus, threatening to transfer to Central State if conditions didn’t turn around.

Wilberforce has been fighting to keep its accreditation since then, too. The school is currently on probation with the Higher Learning Commission, mostly because of its money problems. It was $19 million in the red in 2017, with only $9 million in assets. School officials are trying to raise $2 million by June 30 to improve their bottom line

It's one of several Historically Black College or Universities (HBCU) around the country fighting to keep accreditation -- and money, not academics is the reason, Gasman says.

“The main reason HBCUs lose accreditation is usually because of financial problems, not academics,” she says. “I think it’s important to make that fact known.”

The present collaboration proposal actually mimics the original relationship between the two schools. The schools are across the street from each other for a reason. In 1887, the State of Ohio began funding then-private Wilberforce to educate black Ohioans. The state helped finance a teacher’s program and industrial department that eventually became Central State University. The department had its own board of trustees, but operated under the umbrella of Wilberforce. By 1941 the program was expanded from two to four years and in 1947, legally split from Wilberforce University renamed as the College of Education and Industrial Arts at Wilberforce, Ohio. In 1951, it was renamed Central State College and eventually gained university status.

Wilberforce has a strong claim to being the nation’s oldest private HBCU. It was founded in 1856 as a joint venture between the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and the Methodist Episcopal Church. Many of its original students were biracial offspring of white slave owners. The school was named after British abolitionist William Wilberforce. Alumni include opera singer Leontyne Price, the jazz saxophonist Ben Webster and Bill Powell, who designed the Clearview Golf Course in Canton. 

The school's history why Marshall is optimistic about the new arrangement. He watched the school’s facilities decline when he was a student there, and now he wants to see his alma mater turn around.

“My first year to two years there, I really felt like, ‘Oh, I’m a part of something’,” he says. “As things started to decline, students would take it upon themselves to make things better, so now that there’s outside efforts with Central State, I think it’s really helpful if the end goal is to sustain Wilberforce.”

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