Wilberforce picks new president

University faces challenges of finances, accreditation.

Wilberforce University trustees reportedly have selected Dwyane Smith, vice president for academic affairs at Harris-Stowe State University in St. Louis, to take the university’s helm as it navigates plummeting enrollment and risks losing accreditation.

Wilberforce officials are expected to formally announce Smith’s appointment this weekend during an annual alumni conference, according to multiple sources with first-hand knowledge of the vote who were not authorized to speak publicly about it.

Smith could not be reached for comment Friday. He holds a doctorate from the University of Missouri-Columbia in educational leadership, and his research and career has focused on diversity and multiculturalism. He joined Howard-Stowe in 2006.

Wilberforce economics professor Richard Deering said Smith appears to be well-qualified for the job. But he worries whether anyone could halt the university’s downward spiral.

“The problem that we face is that whoever comes in as president is just going to be faced with an enormous challenge,” said Deering, who has watched enrollment drop from more than 1,000 in the 1980s to just a couple hundred in recent years.

Wilberforce, the nation’s oldest historically black private university, faces losing its accreditation. That could cost its students access to federal financial aid, which most students use to help pay their tuition.

To keep accreditation, the university must demonstrate its case through a plan and site visit. A report must be submitted to the Higher Learning Commission by Dec. 15, followed by a site visit to Greene County in February.

“How a new president is going to be able to do that, I just don’t know,” Deering said.

Smith has a master’s degree in education administration and a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Truman State University in Missouri. He is a St. Louis native.

His tenure at Harris-Stowe includes the college receiving a $2.5 million grant, the largest in the institution’s history.

Harris-Stowe’s enrollment in fall 2013 was 1,298 students, a decrease of 13 percent from fall 2012, according to the minutes from a November 2013 meeting of the faculty senate.

Smith will replace acting president Wilma Mishoe, who responded to the current controversy with a public letter saying Wilberforce will address the Higher Learning Commission’s concerns.

“While we recognize this situation as a crisis, we also accept its challenge,” she wrote. “We can even see a tremendous opportunity to re-invent our beloved Wilberforce University.”

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