Wilberforce at a liminal moment in its 164 history

There are few things as soul crushing as being unseen or seen in ways that belie the truth of who you are.

For colleges and universities, the institutional saga may shift at various times and, if challenges exist that are deeply ingrained, the narrative about the institution may be intractable in the public’s imagination.

Even as success is realized, the prevailing perception and public identity of an institution will often continue to be shaped by its challenges. Unfortunately, in the minds of important constituents, an institution’s triumphs and successes will likely remain obscured.

Philanthropist MacKenzie Scott’s recent gifts to 15 historically black colleges and universities on the heels of her earlier gift of more than $120 million to six HBCUs is a game changer.

Her interest in investing in HBCUs in a real and substantive way shines a welcomed spotlight on the value and importance of their work in positively impacting the lives of African American and the other students they serve.

Credit: Evan Agostini

Credit: Evan Agostini

This astounding generosity is a significant act of affirmation by someone of such considerable wealth and influence. As a sitting HBCU president, I am immensely grateful for this philanthropic largesse to the HBCUs. I am also keenly interested in how I might position the institution I serve to gain this interest, investment, and support.

In a recent article, Scott, the ex-wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, outlined the process she and her team employed to select the institutions she ultimately funded.

At Wilberforce University, this has occasioned an internal conversation about how we can better and more effectively tell the story of the work we are doing to support our students in reaching their academic and life goals.

As the nation’s first, private, HBCU, we recognize our rarefied place in the history and legacy of HBCUs. That, however, has not rendered us at the top of mind for the philanthropic generosity we have recently witnessed; nor should that alone be a deciding factor.

Over the past 18 months, we have done the rigorous and disciplined work of defining our value proposition and outlining a path forward for a viable and sustainable future. A multi-million-dollar gift for us would be transformational. Our greatest lament is the metrics that continue to haunt us and shape the public’s perception of us.

Our past challenges have been formidable: on paper we present a risk that no one with huge sums of money to give is willing to take. The lag between our current state of significant progress and our troubled past has not yet been fully eliminated. Meanwhile we continue to do the work of institutional renewal with focused precision one day at a time, ameliorating one issue at a time.

We remain forever hopeful that we are ultimately seen in the fullness of Wilberforce’s incredible past, complicated and nuanced present, and promising future.

As a small, special-mission, rural, institution with a small enrollment and endowment, Wilberforce finds itself at a liminal moment; a place of transition from the old, crisis-ladened institution with a tenuous future to an expansive, bountiful future of high performance and growth.

We exist at this limen; a threshold of interrogation, strategic thinking, action, and innovation, regarding who we are as a 21st century university and what we might be capable of and committed to becoming.

At Wilberforce, resilience is part of our institutional DNA and we choose to use this historic moment as an urgent call to action to continue our work of institutional renewal and transformation.

Elfred Anthony Pinkard is president of Wilberforce University, a 164-year-old, private historically black institution in Wilberforce.

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