In this writing, Dr. Elfred Anthony Pinkard explains the challenges a small, rural college like Wilberforce faces in the world of philanthropy for HBCUs.
Dancing at the Limen: Wilberforce University-The First and The Future
When they approach me, they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination, indeed, everything and anything except me.
The Invisible Man
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.
The recent MacKenzie Scott gift to 15 HBCUs on the heels of her earlier gift of over $120M to 6 HBCUs is, without a doubt, a game changing event for the HBCU sector. Her interest in investing in HBCUs in a real and substantive way shines a welcomed spotlight on the value and importance of the work they do and have done, in positively impacting the lives of African American and other students of color they serve. 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 and proud and happy for my colleagues. And 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, Ms. Scott 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 founded by people of African descent, we recognize our rarefied place in the history and legacy of HBCUs. That alone, however, has not rendered us top of mind for the philanthropic generosity we have recently witnessed; nor should it. 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 our public self.
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. Our situation channels a universally understood motif in the African American community; the unschooled, single mother with a minimum wage job who sends each of her children to college which positions each for a transformed life. On paper, you would not bet on that mother, in reality, her family outcomes are extraordinary. 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 finally seen in the fullness of Wilberforce’s incredible past, complicated and nuanced present, and promising future.
This is an inflection point for HBCUs as we confront a global pandemic, a reckoning of racial and social injustice and the historic levels of philanthropic support. The entire sector is lifted by the investment and recognition of these record breaking gifts. We are all compelled to excellence and high performance and the hope of attracting additional donors who will not feel as though they are throwing their good money after bad.
As a small, special-mission, rural, institution with 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 and 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 these historic circumstances as an urgent call to action to continue our work of institutional renewal and transformation. We invite partners to support and invest in Wilberforce University as we honor the work begun by our founders 164 years ago.
Elfred Anthony Pinkard