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Wilberforce President Elfred Pinkard Talks About the University's Future

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

Wilberforce President Elfred Anthony Pinkard, Ed.D., tells WYSO’s Jason Reynolds that the university is overcoming the pandemic the same way it’s overcome challenges for the last 165 years—by putting its students first.

PINKARD: Wilberforce University was founded in 1856, making it the oldest, private, historically Black college in the nation founded by people of African descent. At a time when people of African descent were in fact enslaved in the American South, the idea of a Wilberforce—of a university for formerly enslaved persons—was a bold and audacious and really quite disruptive idea.

Our first president was the first black person to preside over an American college or university. And I always say, look at the history of Wilberforce and what you will see as a recurring theme is the fact that this institution’s DNA is about resilience and triumph over challenges.

REYNOLDS: You recently wrote an editorial about MacKenzie Scott’s donations to HBCUs. She’s given over $100 million dollars to historically black colleges. Wilberforce was not among those colleges. You said that was cause for reflection--that you wanted to more effectively explain how Wilberforce helps students reach their goals. Can you tell us what you’ve come up with so far--what’s the message Wilberforce wants to send to prospective students and donors?

PINKARD: The message is that the university is alive and well—that the university has outlined and defined a value proposition based not only on an incredible legacy, but also on understanding what’s happening in contemporary education and being able to tap into some of those needs.

For example, parents and prospective parents are interested in educational experiences that can prepare them for the real world. At Wilberforce, we have had, since 1964, a cooperative education program that does just that. In fact, if you speak with many of our alums, they will say to you that “I have been successful in my career because of that cooperative education program.”

We have reimagined that program. We are in fact partnering with businesses and having students work partially at the businesses while they are pursuing their degree.

REYNOLDS: The pandemic is changing the way all colleges work. There’s more demand for virtual classes. There’s more need for student health services. Classrooms and cafeterias look different. But big challenges often lead to big opportunities. I’m curious what’s changed for the better at Wilberforce because of all these challenges. What has the unexpected upside been?

PINKARD: I think the unexpected upside is for both our faculty and our students to recognize that they live in a virtual environment. The social media is a virtual environment. Most young people, you can not separate them from their phones. They live on social media.

So, what was a “eureka experience” for our students was that we were asking them to just simply shift their traditional way of learning and recognize that this was not less than, it was just different than. And this was an opportunity for them to develop another skill set in learning in an environment that they have already had some facility and fluency in doing.

REYNOLDS: The college experience is more than just textbooks and grades. You have to prepare students to go out into the real world and make real change. As the head of a Historically Black University, how is Wilberforce preparing its students to thrive in these turbulent times?

PINKARD: We encourage our students to be critical thinkers. We encourage our students to be disruptive thoughts leaders, to be angelic disruptors. And we also give our students an opportunity to see individuals that look like them that have accomplished. We often times say, “You cannot be what you cannot see.”

So, it’s important for a student to come to Wilberforce and see a black biologist or black chemist or black historian or a black social worker or a black sociologist or psychologist. Those moments are very, very important because, unfortunately, in the lives of many African American students that will be the very first time in their educational experience that they will have had that kind of celebratory moment.

That’s what we offer on a daily basis: individuals who look like students, who show up everyday and give our best so our students can become their best.

Copyright 2021 WYSO. To see more, visit WYSO.

Dr. Pinkard says that the pandemic has helped faculty find new ways to teach and new ways to learn.
Courtesy of Wilberforce University /
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Dr. Pinkard says that the pandemic has helped faculty find new ways to teach and new ways to learn.