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Concerned Alumni Question Oakwood University’s Leadership, Finances

Oakwood University

More than a thousand Oakwood University alumni have organized online to raise concerns about the school’s finances and other operational issues. In October, representatives from the “Concerned Oakwoodites” group met with members of the Oakwood University Board of Trustees. In a press release before the meeting, the group said that “a lack of transparency, accountability and corrective action” from the university motivated them to act.

“We are the culmination of, I think, years of concerns and frustrations being expressed,” David Person, a cofounder of Concerned Oakwoodites, said in an interview with Spectrum. In addition to alumni, Person said that faculty, staff, and students have alleged issues with the university’s operations in recent years, ranging from deficient maintenance to poor faculty retention.

As a top area of concern, Person points to the university’s financial statements, which show total liabilities rising from $22 million to $43 million between 2021 and 2022. Documents show that the university has taken out several large loans to fund building and renovation projects.

Located in Huntsville, Alabama, Oakwood is the Adventist Church’s only historically Black university. The school has graduated many prominent alumni throughout its history and long held an influential role within the denomination.

“The University is solvent,” Oakwood wrote in response to Spectrum’s questions about the university’s finances. Oakwood also released a statement acknowledging financial challenges but expressing optimism for the university’s future. “After reviewing the financial records of the University, the Board found that certain assertions were based on misunderstandings,” the statement said. The statement also says that the board will share more about the current financial year when an audit is completed, but that auditors have assured that “the leveraged debt of the University does not threaten its solvency.”

According to the university, $15 million of the debt came from a federal financial program that will be forgiven over seven years, with the funds going toward infrastructure improvements. Overall, Oakwood claims to hold a 0.34 debt-to-total assets ratio.

While concerns have eventually grown to include multiple issues, according to David Person, the alumni first began to mobilize earlier this year when the online stream for the university’s FM radio station, WJOU, went down. Many alumni who no longer live in the area listen online to the station, which has been on air since the 1970s. Inquiries revealed that an outstanding bill with an internet services company led to the outage.

Alumnus Dane Timpson, whose father-in-law had hosted a prominent show on the station for decades, told WAFF 48 News that a group came together to raise $5,500 to get the stream back online and pay the bill for the coming year. “Shutting down the radio stream was like shutting down our legacy,” he said.

In a statement, Oakwood claimed that the stream “was down for a short time and has now been established” and that the university is “working with donors to fund much-needed technology upgrades for the station.”

After the radio station outage, more alumni kept talking with each other, concerned that the university might have more serious underlying financial issues. In September, they created the Concerned Oakwoodites Facebook group, which has since grown to include over 1,500 members.

In October, the group held a press conference. “Recent concerns shared with us by faculty, staff, students, parents, and even board members have compelled us to come together,” the group said in a press release ahead of the event. “A lack of transparency, accountability, and corrective action is what compelled us to make our concerns public.”

One local business owner said her bills have gone unpaid by the university. Courtney Fitchard owns Clean Supreme, a cleaning business that has worked with the university since 2010. But in the last several years, Oakwood has owed up to $25,000 in unpaid services, she told WAFF 48 News, with $11,000 still outstanding when she spoke with a reporter in October. The university later said that it spoke with Fitchard, paid the full amount, and that it “apologize[s] for the delay.”

Concerns also extend beyond finances. Writing on Facebook, one former employee said that the administration had pressured the admissions department to accept students who didn’t have proper documentation of their previous education in order to boost enrollment numbers. A former faculty member claimed that many departments have been understaffed and unable to fill vacant positions.

Parents and students have also raised concerns about infrastructure problems. In March 2022, the university suffered a ransomware attack and data breach that may have given hackers access to sensitive student and employee information. According to a lawsuit that Oakwood filed against its IT and cyber security vendor, the university had to pay the hackers $800,000 to regain access to its systems. Even after regaining access, the university had to manually process payroll for several months. The US Department of Education put the school on a watch list that required weekly reporting to the agency.

Students have also reported poor internet access on campus. One parent of a student claimed they had to buy a mobile hotspot plan so the student could complete their coursework through a cellphone connection. The United Student Movement, Oakwood’s student body organization, has asked the administration for better internet access and academic accommodations. “Many students continue to face challenges in accessing reliable and high-speed internet connections,” wrote Michael Hall, the current student union president, in a letter to the student body.

The university responded that it is creating new wifi zones, along with directing faculty to give extensions and try to administer assignments “by pencil and paper” in class when possible.

Following the public campaign by the Concerned Oakwoodites, the Oakwood University Board of Trustees invited several representatives to an in-person meeting. The board is chaired by Alexander Bryant, president of the North American Division of Seventh-day Adventists. Leslie Pollard, Oakwood’s president since 2011, is the board secretary. Unlike most Adventist universities in North America that are connected to local union conferences, Oakwood is directly attached to the North American Division.

To David Person, the reports of dysfunction point to fundamental issues with the university’s governance. “I want to see a change in the culture of the board,” he said. Currently, more than half of the board members are denominational employees, and he would like to see more lay representation.

Although the work of the Concerned Oakwoodites might be seen as publicly critical, Person says it is done out of love for the university.

“Our efforts are not about trying to diminish Oakwood or in any way undercut any progress that has been made by this administration or any of the previous administrations,” he said. “It's about simple things. Be accountable, be transparent. And when you have problems . . . let us know what corrective action you're going to take and ask us for help. We're willing to help.”

Title image by Spectrum.

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