Board leader: Howard U. remains strong


Former President Billl Clinton and Howard University President Sidney A. Ribeau talk during the school's 145th commencement ceremony on May 11, 2013, in Washington. (Mark Gail/The Washington Post)
June 10, 2013

The chairman of Howard University’s Board of Trustees declared Monday that the school’s future is bright, rebutting concerns raised in another trustee’s scathing critique of the university’s leadership.

“As Chairman I want to assure you that working together with input from all of the University stakeholders,” Addison Barry Rand wrote in a letter to the campus community, “Howard University remains academically, financially and operationally strong.”

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.

University officials say one reason enrollment fell was that federal officials tightened eligibility requirements for a type of loan to parents known as PLUS loans, making it harder for families to pay the bills at the private university.

Tuition and fees were about $22,700 for undergraduates in the school year that just ended. That was up about 12 percent from the year before but is still lower than the price of many private universities.

The board has decided to freeze tuition and fees for the coming school year.

Another issue is the federal budget sequester.

Howard relies much more heavily on federal funding than other historically black colleges.

It was expecting an annual appropriation of about $234 million this year, which would account for about 27 percent of Howard’s operating budget. But the mandatory budget cuts known as the sequester are expected to reduce that funding by more than $10 million.

In addition, Howard owns and operates a hospital that serves many D.C. residents. Ribeau said in his speech that hospital revenue, which accounts for 35 percent of the operating budget, was lower than expected in the first half of the fiscal year.

Rand, who is chief executive of AARP, wrote in his letter Monday that the issues Howard faces are not unique.

“Like most institutions of higher education,” he wrote, “our university is addressing complex organizational challenges and has made some difficult and sometimes unpopular decisions that are necessary to enhance the institution’s viability and growth.”

Even so, Rand asserted, the university remains an academic power as the nation’s top producer of minority lawyers, dentists, physicians and African American doctoral degrees.

“Demand for a Howard University education remains strong,” he wrote, “with more than 20,000 high achieving students applying for admission each year.”

In her letter, Higginbotham-Brooks, who is a Texas attorney and Howard graduate, wrote that “the rationale for the University’s existence is expected to be challenged since African American students can attend any college or university today.”

A former Post education editor, Nick writes about college from the perspective of a father of three who will soon be buried in tuition bills.
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