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Amid A Rough Patch, Howard University Faces Flagging Morale

Students walk by Founders Library on Howard University campus in Washington, D.C.
Meredith Rizzo
Students walk by Founders Library on Howard University campus in Washington, D.C.

Howard University, one of the country's most prominent historically black schools, has hit a rough patch in recent months.

The school's Faculty Senate recently voted no confidence in leaders of the school's Board of Trustees. That vote came just weeks after Howard's president announced a surprise early retirement and Moody's Investors Service downgraded the university's credit rating, as my Code Switch teammate Gene Demby has reported.

Professor Gregory Jenkins has been tracking the developments out of Howard.

"All of the negative news has not been good for [the morale of faculty and staff]," says Jenkins, who teaches in the physics and astronomy department at the private university.

He first took serious notice of Howard's challenges in June, when an internal letter written by the vice chairwoman of the school's Board of Trustees was leaked to the press. Renee Higginbotham-Brooks warned in the letter, "Howard will not be here in three years if we don't make some crucial decisions now."

"We may have heard about things, but hearing it from the Board of Trustees was another level," Jenkins says. "They have access to all of the relevant information, and they know best what the true state of the university is."

According to Higginbotham-Brooks' letter and a recent ratings report by Moody's Investors Service, Howard University's financial future looks troubled. The school faced recent drops in enrollment partly due to federal loan policy changes, although the numbers did begin to recover this fall semester. Then, there's the threat of cuts to the school's federal funding, which makes up more than a quarter of its operating budget. Moody's also described Howard University Hospital as a "drag on university operations" for its high expenses.

Credit downgrades have been common among other schools facing similar financial challenges — and not just at historically black schools like Howard.

The leaders of Howard's Board of Trustees could not be reached for interviews, but in a letter to the Howard community in response to Higginbotham-Brooks' assessment, Chairman Addison Barry Rand insisted that the school is "academically, financially and operationally strong."

Still, Jenkins, who led the Faculty Senate's no-confidence vote and organized a campus protest against the board and administration, says he and other faculty want more transparency. "We feel worn down at the end of the day because we do everything or as much as we can to make this place go," he explains. "Yet when we see what's going on above us, it doesn't seem like there's a light at the end of the tunnel."

Dr. Wayne Frederick, a cancer surgeon, took over as interim president at Howard University in October.
Meredith Rizzo / NPR
Dr. Wayne Frederick, a cancer surgeon, took over as interim president at Howard University in October.

Howard has begun taking steps to address some concerns, including a leadership transition. Howard's interim president Dr. Wayne Frederick took over in October after an unexpected end to Sidney Ribeau's five-year presidency. Frederick, a cancer surgeon, points to recent signs of progress at Howard: a recovery from recent dips in enrollment, a balanced budget for four consecutive years, and an endowment that has climbed back to pre-recession levels.

But the interim president admits there has been extra attention focused on Howard as it continues what he calls an "internal" discussion about the school's future. "That scrutiny is a scrutiny that we have to accept it for what it is," Frederick says. "But that scrutiny has also allowed us to do an introspection and to make sure our vision is set, and I think we are comfortable with where we're heading."

At Howard University's recent homecoming, the school's future was on the mind of several students and alumni, including Jacoby DuBose, who graduated in 2006.

"It's kind of heartbreaking because so many people look up to the school, and we're always looking for the school to be better and to excel more every year," he said.

Sophomore Amanda Dews, a public relations major, expects more transitions in the coming months. "Something needs to change, and I think it's going to change soon. I just don't know what. I feel like the administration knows a lot of stuff that they're not telling us," she said.

What students and alumni at Howard could stand to hear more about is the importance of giving back to the school, says Marybeth Gasman, who studies historically black colleges and universities at the University of Pennsylvania.

"If all these Howard alumni who went to homecoming, even if they gave up let's say two or three coffees a week, and gave that amount, their institution would have so much more funding with which to operate," says Gasman.

She adds that more funding for the school allows for greater flexibility and usually fewer problems. In the end, though, Gasman's betting on the storied Howard University to weather the storm.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Hansi Lo Wang (he/him) is a national correspondent for NPR reporting on the people, power and money behind the U.S. census.