Rand’s sunny appraisal of the historically black university in Northwest Washington came three days after disclosure of a critique from board Vice Chairwoman Renee Higginbotham-Brooks.
On April 24, Higginbotham-Brooks wrote to the board that the university “is in genuine trouble” and declared that “Howard will not be here in three years if we don’t make some crucial decisions now.” In her critique, disclosed Friday, she listed several concerns about fiscal and management issues and called for a board vote of no confidence in Rand and university President Sidney A. Ribeau.
Rand and Ribeau, through spokeswomen, have declined requests for interviews. Higginbotham-Brooks also declined to be interviewed.
Some of the fiscal questions that Higginbotham-Brooks raised reflected issues that Ribeau himself addressed in an April 3 “state of the university” speech to the campus community.
At the end of fiscal 2012, Howard had a revenue surplus of $10 million more than its annual operating expenses of $841 million. But after fiscal 2013 began, its finances quickly deteriorated. Ribeau said Howard faced a triple threat from reductions in student enrollment, federal appropriations and hospital revenue.
“To be in the difficult situation of facing revenue shortfalls in each of these three areas in the current fiscal year has resulted in a significant negative impact on our operating budget,” Ribeau said.
As a result, he said, the university in late January decided to curtail operations during spring break, cut salaries for senior administrators by 5 percent through June, suspend its contributions to certain employee retirement plans through June and modify medical benefits to cut costs.
The swirling questions about the university’s finances have disturbed Howard faculty, students and alumni.
“I’d say the faculty are concerned, and rightly so,” said Richard Wright, a professor of communications and language studies. Wright serves on the board of trustees but said he was speaking only as a faculty member and would not comment on the letter from Higginbotham-Brooks.
Wright lamented that Howard’s fiscal condition is a frequent concern.
“It’s not always clear from the faculty’s perspective what factors are driving a situation that doesn’t seem to ever be able to be turned around,” he said. “There’s a lack of clarity.”
Wright added that problems should not be overblown. “I don’t see anything that’s going to shut us down in a few years,” he said.
Nonetheless, Howard faces an unusual confluence of challenges. Its student enrollment in fall 2011 was 10,583. By fall 2012, the total was 10,002. Most of the drop was in undergraduate enrollment.