Howard trustee says university in ‘trouble’

June 7, 2013

A vice chairwoman of Howard University’s board of trustees recently told the board that the historically black school in Northwest Washington “is in genuine trouble” because of fiscal and management problems, according to a report published Friday.

“Howard will not be here in three years if we don’t make some crucial decisions now,” Renee Higginbotham-Brooks wrote in a letter dated April 24, which the Chronicle of Higher Education published on its Web site.

Among the concerns Higginbotham-Brooks cited were competition for students from less expensive public colleges, the possibility of a reduction in federal appropriations, expenses associated with the university’s hospital, the absence of a robust fundraising system to offset declines in tuition revenue and a university workforce that she said is too large.

Rachel Mann, a spokeswoman for Howard, said Friday afternoon that the university would refer questions about the letter to the board chairman, Addison Barry Rand, who was traveling and was unavailable for an interview.

“Spirited debate and discourse are part of the culture of higher education,” Rand, who is chief executive of AARP, said in a statement. “The board and the university’s leadership team continue to work tirelessly to address many of the tough issues facing colleges and universities like Howard.”

Higginbotham-Brooks, a Howard graduate who is a lawyer in Fort Worth, did not immediately respond to e-mail and telephone messages left with her office. She has been on the board since 1997 and vice chairwoman since 2005.

Howard, a private institution founded in 1867, is one of the nation’s premier historically black colleges. Former president Bill Clinton addressed its commencement last month. The Fiske Guide to Colleges calls it “the flagship university of black America,” and U.S. News & World Report ranks it second among historically black colleges behind Spelman College in Atlanta.

The university reported 10,583 graduate and undergraduate students in fall 2011, a total consistent with enrollment in previous years. Its tuition and fees for the 2012-13 school year were about $22,700, which was 12 percent higher than the year before. Howard’s president, Sidney A. Ribeau, assumed that office in August 2008 after a 13-year run as leader of Bowling Green State University in Ohio.

In her letter, Higginbotham-Brooks accused Ribeau of “lackluster job performance” and said the “partnership” between Ribeau and Rand “has not served us well.”

Ribeau was unavailable for comment late Friday.

The letter from Higginbotham-Brooks followed some other recent rumblings of debate about Howard’s management. In February 2012, shortly after Ribeau announced some budget cuts, faculty senate leaders protested “outrageous bonuses” that a few administrators had received in 2010.

Nick Anderson covers higher education for The Washington Post. He has been a writer and editor at The Post since 2005.
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