History envelops Howard University. Consider Frederick Douglass Memorial Hall, a neoclassical academic building with a dome-shaped bell tower fronting the broad green of The Yard at the core of the campus. As a tour guide notes, the name etched above the columns at the entrance is not happenstance. The famed abolitionist and social reformer was a trustee of the federally chartered institution for more than two decades in the late 19th century.
Now, as the historically black university in Northwest Washington heads toward the 150th anniversary of its founding in 1867, trustees, administrators, faculty and others are pondering its future.
President Sidney A. Ribeau, head of Howard since 2008, his top deputies and two trustees spoke with The Washington Post for nearly two hours Saturday evening. The interview took place in advance of a story, published Tuesday, about a letter in which Howard’s academic deans contended that “fiscal mismanagement” was damaging the university. Ribeau vigorously denied that allegation.
Ribeau sought to frame the debate, which has been simmering for weeks as Howard confronts revenue shortages on multiple fronts, in terms of the university’s larger goals.
What has been missing, he said, is context.
“This is a journey,” Ribeau said, “the story of where we were moving to renew the legacy of Howard University.” The renewal, he said, is about academics, facilities, faculty and administration. “The whole renewal process was done in a way that was collaborative and transparent.”
Ribeau noted that the university’s financial statements, audits, credit agency reports, treasurer’s reports and tax returns are posted publicly online.
Howard’s academic renewal effort has received some notice already. In 2010 The Post covered how Ribeau was coordinating a phaseout of some of Howard’s weaker academic programs — such as bachelor’s degrees in anthropology, classical civilization and fashion merchandising — to concentrate resources on its strengths.
In addition, the university has offered faculty voluntary retirement incentives and spent millions of dollars to upgrade buildings such as Downing Hall, home of the engineering programs, and the College of Medicine, which has a new surgical simulation center.
Construction began in the spring on two student residential halls on Fourth Street NW, expected to cost $107 million, and an interdisciplinary research building on Georgia Avenue NW, budgeted at $70 million.
Administrative renewal, as Ribeau terms it, is getting intense scrutiny. In a nutshell, the concept is to reorganize management, services and systems so that the university functions more efficiently. In practice that has meant some staff cuts. Exactly how many is unclear. The university disclosed in June that it is cutting 75 non-faculty staff positions, which led to 53 layoffs as of June 7. The university had 3,636 non-faculty employees as of June 14.
Officials say that they have balanced budgets and significantly cut administrative overhead, improving on the fiscal conditions they inherited when Ribeau took office five years ago.
The academic deans, in their June 6 letter to trustees, urged a halt to administrative renewal and sought the dismissal of the university’s chief financial officer, Robert M. Tarola, who has held the job for more than three years as an independent contractor. They cited, among other issues, concerns connected to the decision of an external auditor, PricewaterhouseCoopers, to terminate its relationship with the university. They also said that budget cuts have “not resulted in improved operating conditions” for academic programs.
After meeting with Ribeau on June 10, however, the deans issued a letter the next day thanking him for his transparency and pledging their help to meet Howard’s challenges.
On Saturday, Ribeau and two trustees spoke via speakerphone as others gathered in a conference room in the Mordecai Johnson Administration Building. (Another history alert: Johnson, Howard’s first African American president, was a towering figure in the university’s development, serving from 1926 to 1960.)
In the room were Provost Wayne A.I. Frederick, General Counsel Kurt L. Schmoke, spokeswoman Kerry-Ann Hamilton and Tarola. The trustees on the phone were Robert L. Lumpkins, chairman of the finance committee on the Board of Trustees, and Elizabeth G. Early, chairwoman of the academic excellence committee, whose term on the board ended Monday.
It is worth noting that board chairman Addison Barry Rand and vice chairwoman Renee Higginbotham-Brooks have declined multiple interview requests. A letter from Higginbotham-Brooks, disclosed on June 7, contended that Howard is “in genuine trouble” because of fiscal and management issues. Rand countered that the university remains “academically, financially and operationally strong.”
Here are some other points that emerged from Saturday’s interview: