At Howard, abrupt resignation reassures few

October 3, 2013

Bill Clinton speaks during Howard University’s 145th commencement ceremony on May 11. (Mark Gail/The Washington Post)

On a sunny fall day following Howard University’s abrupt  leadership change, much of the campus was still in the dark. While students, faculty and staff members discussed school President Sidney Ribeau’s announcement that he would retire in December, the blackout on specifics made matters worse: Had he been forced out? What was the real reason? And will this really change the core problems facing the school?

Indeed, Ribeau’s Tuesday afternoon e-mail sent to the school community announcing his departure, was vague at best, confusing at worst. And for many on campus, that lack of transparency and honest discussion of the school’s problems is illustrative of “The Mecca”‘s current struggles.

“My main thought was, ‘Why?’ I feel like we as a campus didn’t get a clear reason why he did that,” Tyler Brown, a junior from Atlanta said. “Him being our president, I felt like we should have gotten that.”

Howard’s history of student disgruntlement is nothing new. But for many students, life at the school has become a tricky balance between maintaining the morale it takes to succeed academically and facing the real-life issues that come with an unresponsive higher-ups.

“The administration, when you go to the A-building, there’s nothing anybody can do for you,” Ayanna McIntosh, a senior from New York, said, referring to the school’s administration building. “They always send you to somebody else who sends you to somebody else, and it’s a goose chase until you finally say, okay, I don’t want to do this anymore.” Dining at The Cafe, which overlooks McMillian Reservoir, she added: “Howard students love Howard. Administration is the problem, not the morale of the school. That’s it.”

There’s also the tricky issue of faculty. A few chose not to speak on the record about the situation, out of concern that their positions or programs could be compromised if their comments were seen as negative. That alone is a major red flag: Educators who are reasonably critical of their leadership should be taken seriously, considering they are the ones tasked with the teaching. If they feel threatened, it’s unhealthy for the campus culture.

Privately, some will tell you that Ribeau was just the latest fall guy for a regime that can’t get its act together and has acted in shadowy self-interest as to not put at risk the federal appropriation the school receives, which is upwards of $200 million.

“I was shocked, I was surprised,” said one university contractor who asked that his name not be used. He found out after calling a co-worker on personal business, who told him about Ribeau. “I’m hoping some good things happen next. Who the hell ever knows,” he said.

One who has no problems speaking out is Gregory Jenkins, a professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy. Last month, he started a Change.org petition, calling for “open, honest answers from the Administration and [Board of Trustees] about the short and long-term future of the MECCA,” but not specifically the ouster of Ribeau. On Sept. 12, it had received 250 signatures. Last week, at the Opening Convocation, a protest was held. Demonstrators held signs reading: “BOT [Board of Trustees]: Do you really care?” and “Transparency, accountability and responsibility.”

Jenkins did end up meeting with Ribeau, but got no response from the board. He made clear that he didn’t consider Ribeau himself to be the problem. “I think that we all liked President Ribeau because he is a very nice and caring person,” he wrote in an e-mail. “However, the staff and faculty have also taken furloughs, suspension of benefits and there have been layoffs in support of President Ribeau’s efforts to address financial issues. At the end, it is about the well-being of Howard University. The challenges still exist and need to be addressed.”

Given all of that, it appears that Howard continues to struggle because there is so little honest confrontation with its core problems: If, in 2013, one of the most storied HBCU’s still can’t get things as simple as registration under control each semester — even after years and years of complaints from students, parents and alumni — it makes you wonder how seriously the school takes on fundamental management issues. Meanwhile, nobody knows what happens at board meetings because they aren’t subject to FOIA laws, further making impossible a true understanding of how decisions are made. And now the president is now gone, with no real reason. This lack of progress is not only holding Howard back, but reflects poorly on all HBCUs and how they define themselves in today’s America, fairly or not.

As frustrating as the situation might be, not all students have lost faith.

“I feel like in a way it’s a good thing. I feel like Howard needs a rebirth, and you can’t really have a rebirth if you have the same kind of administration within the government of the student body,” said Tahrir Rasool, a bio-premed major from Cape Town, South Africa. “… It’s sad that it has to happen so abruptly, but I feel that if the board thinks he has to go and he thinks he has to go, then, I’d rather have someone who’s here because they want to be versus someone who’s here because they have to be here.”

She added: “If our top leaders aren’t working together and there isn’t a perfect synthesis of those who want the best for Howard and those who see the future of Howard, it does trickle down to our student body, because we then feel unsettled in a university that doesn’t have a stable government. But for the most part I feel that everyone at Howard sees the vision at Howard. We see the potential of Howard. We see the benefits of Howard.”

And in the Mordecai Johnson Administration Building, it was business as usual. Pictures of Ribeau with dignitaries hang on the first floor wall. The clocks above the mini-computer lab show time zones from across the globe. The minute hands all read different. On the fourth floor, where the president’s office is located, marble walls and wood paneling signal a level of importance. Keycode security pads with red lights are affixed to select doors.

In front of the elevator, at the front desk, the outpost that determines who gets through to the walled-off suites nearby, an employee speaks up. “This is about as far as you can get,” she warned.

I figured.

Clinton Yates is a D.C. native and an online columnist. When he's not covering the city, pop culture or listening to music, he watches sports. A lot of them.
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Tom Jackman · October 3, 2013