DURHAM — Though N.C. Central University had a little cake and pageantry Thursday to mark its 100th birthday, the school's focus in this centennial year has been on celebrating in a more meaningful way - boosting alumni participation, drumming up financial support and emphasizing its academic mission.
As Chancellor Charlie Nelms sees it, all that led the historically black institution to this moment helped prepare it for the challenges of today.
NCCU concluded its string of centennial events Thursday, with Nelms burying a time capsule that includes a letter he wrote to NCCU's chancellor 100 years from now.
"It's to give that chancellor some idea of how the institution got to that point," Nelms said. "Had that letter been there for me, it would have confirmed to me some of the challenges that [NCCU Founder James Shepard] must have endured."
One of those challenges has long been funding, both public and private. The centennial year was intended, in part, to involve alumni and to get them to give back to the school.
The result is mixed so far, Nelms said Thursday.
Although a greater emphasis on communication has brought more alumni back to campus, the struggling economy appears to have taken its toll, he said. NCCU has more donors now than it did a year ago, but it brought in less money than the prior year.
That's a blow, given that NCCU is in the middle of a $50 million fundraising campaign and created a student call center this year to connect with donors. The university hoped student involvement would bolster donations to the annual fund. Until last year, that been outsourced to a private fundraising firm that in its final year netted $217,000 for NCCU. More current fundraising figures weren't available Thursday.
About 7.9 percent of NCCU alumni give back to the university, below the 11.7 percent average for all universities, according to 2009 data.
Still, many graduates say they're hearing from the university more these days and feel more connected to it. They've gathered for alumni "Days of Service," performing garden and other services in the Durham community.
And they've been pleased with the historical nature of many centennial events.
From the first event a year ago - a re-enactment of the signing of the university's charter that featured the descendants of the actual signers - NCCU has trumpeted its history heavily.
The institution has traveled a winding path. The university was conceived by Shepard and a small group of Durham businessmen who wanted a religious school for blacks. At its founding, it was called the National Religious Training School and Chautauqua for the Colored Race.
The school relied on donations, which waned when World War I arrived. It couldn't pay its bills and was eventually turned over to the state, which in 1923 made it a teacher training school for blacks. Shepard became its principal.
Two years later, Shepard lobbied and received state money to turn it into a liberal arts college, and it became the North Carolina College for Negroes, the nation's first liberal arts college for blacks.
NCCU now enrolls 8,300 students on a largely landlocked, cramped campus.
Much of NCCU's centennial observance was distinctly academic, reflecting Nelms' desire to emphasize the university as a hub for intellectualism. No event illustrated that more clearly than a recent symposium hosted by NCCU that brought university leaders from across the nation to examine the future of historically black colleges and universities.
Asking tough questions
Far from a pep rally, the symposium offered a critical look at the challenges facing these institutions. Chief among them, many said, are lagging graduation and retention rates. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, in his keynote address, challenged historically black colleges and universities to get more students to graduation day.
The symposium was, for a while, the talk of black higher education, said Marybeth Gasman, a University of Pennsylvania researcher who writes extensively about HBCUs. Many left the event impressed that it tackled the sometimes uncomfortable issues of graduation rates, funding problems and long-held complaints about financial aid, admissions and other campus services.
Through it all, the symposium helped raise NCCU's national profile, she said.
"I heard in a lot of HBCU circles after how happy people were that it did have those honest discussions," said Gasman, who was a panelist during the symposium. "It was just a really, really rich and honest discussion. And that doesn't always happen in higher education."
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