I am the 22nd president of Wilberforce University — this nation’s oldest, private institution among Historically Black Colleges and Universities — which was founded, owned and operated by people of African descent. Wilberforce University occupies a rare place as the first among a group of institutions called HBCUs with a special mission to highly educate African Americans, and it presents an extraordinary expression of self determination of people still enslaved in the American south.
The institutional DNA of Wilberforce University boasts a legacy of overcoming difficult challenges. In fact, the year 2020 would prove no less formidable when it tested the university’s and its students’ resilience, tenacity and strength, and moved our school community to immeasurable pride and joy.
That year began unremarkably as the campus community prepared for the upcoming spring break. We expected to return to finish the academic year, to hold a celebratory commencement, bid farewell to our graduating seniors and begin preparing for a new academic season. Soon, we would learn a looming, ominous threat would significantly upend our lives and the rhythm of academic life at Wilberforce University. We pivoted, as did every other institution of higher learning, and we attempted to make the best of an increasingly difficult situation that was laden with unanticipated daily stressors.
Despite the rich and storied history of Wilberforce University, even in steadier times, the university consistently faced significant challenges. So that despite limited resources and lingering uncertainty, our students did not allow the COVID 19 pandemic to derail their academic journeys. These are young people whose intellect, talents and abilities have sometimes been ignored or marginalized their entire lives. In this time of epic crisis, they triumphed over this raging 21st century health adversity with the same 19th century spirited determination carried by our founding fathers.
This year, at the 165th commencement of Wilberforce University, I made an announcement that captured the attention, it seems, of the world, placing the university in the spotlight: “Members of the classes of 2020 and 2021, because we are in awe of your strength and perseverance, because you’ve made your families and friends proud, because you have shown the world you are capable of enduring difficult times, because you represent the best of future generations, we wish to give you a fresh start.” In summary, I announced the university cleared the debt directly owed to the university by the grads. Wilberforce was proud to relieve some of their financial responsibility, but we could not alleviate their debt that is owed to federal student loans or financial institutions.
It was sheer joy to witness the unbridled excitement and delight of our graduates in their implicit realization that their university cared about them and their future. Indeed, we cleared their accounts, but we also provided them a moment in the sun following a year of unexpected challenges and uncertainty.
No doubt that announcement has resurrected the broader conversation about relieving student debt, but that must involve many divergent voices and perspectives. However, like most thorny issues facing the American public that conjure deep seated attitudes about race, poverty and systemic unfairness, there will be conversations that undoubtedly generate more heat than light. I do believe, however, that some relief of student debt has the potential to positively and significantly impact the lives and futures of all students.
So, in our serene, southwest corner of rural Ohio, we made a decision focusing on the graduating classes of 2020 and 2021 for which we will be forever proud. We determined that we could provide at once, an acknowledgement of their hard work and give them a little more runway to begin their lives with one less debt to manage.
Elfred Anthony Pinkard is the 22nd president of Wilberforce University
About the Author