Howard U. Board of Trustees: drama behind the scenes

October 2, 2013

There are a few postscripts to the behind-the-scenes drama on the Howard University Board of Trustees that emerged a few months before the school’s president abruptly announced his retirement this week.

First, the strongly worded letter that Vice Chairwoman Renee Higginbotham-Brooks wrote on April 24 to trustees, which sought a no-confidence vote in University President Sidney A. Ribeau and board Chairman Addison Barry Rand, was apparently sparked in part by her anger at a decision to create a second vice chair for the board without consulting her in advance.

Yet in the months since, the board’s public Web site has indicated that no second vice chair has been named. Higginbotham-Brooks remains listed as the sole trustee with that title. Which raises a tantalizing question: Would she have written the letter if this obscure internal maneuvering on board governance had never occurred? Hard to answer. Higginbotham-Brooks has declined requests for comment.

Rand, chief executive of AARP and a graduate of American University, has been on the Howard board since 2001 and has been chairman since 2006. Higginbotham-Brooks, a Texas attorney and graduate of Howard, has been on the board since 1997 and has been vice chairwoman since 2005.

Second, after the letter was written, but before it became public in early June through a report in The Chronicle of Higher Education, the board retained a management/communications consultant named Judy Smith. This 2012 story in The Washington Post notes that Smith represented famous clients such as Monica Lewinsky and was the inspiration for the ABC television series “Scandal.” Smith is described on this Web site as “America's #1 Crisis Management Expert.”

What was Smith’s task for Howard?

Rand, chief executive of AARP, told The Post in July: “We thought that we needed to have expert messaging. And that messaging had to go to all of the groups of people who had deep interest in Howard. So as you know, you can call it making sure the brand was not hurt because we ended up not having the right kind of messaging. And so apparently she was an expert in that, and that’s what we wanted to bring on board.”

What might have hurt the brand? Rand cited this provocative statement in Higginbotham-Brooks’s letter: “Howard will not be here in three years if we don’t make some crucial decisions now.”

The chairman told The Post: “Well, obviously that’s not true, but there were people asking us the question. And so, our job here is to run the university. We needed someone to make sure that we had the right messaging. And we had different constituents. ... We wanted to make sure they knew what the truth was.”

Rand declined to say how much Smith was paid.

Asked whether hiring a “crisis management expert” meant that the board considered the episode a crisis for Howard, Rand said: “There are different ways to define crisis. There’s only one way to define are you ready for the myriad of questions that come — especially questions that are formulated from a fact base that’s not correct.”

Third, Higginbotham-Brooks wrote this about Rand and Ribeau: “We have ignored one impropriety after another beginning with the personal relationship between the president and the chairman.” Her letter did not elaborate on the accusation.

Previously, the Post has reported that Rand was once married to Ribeau’s sister. The marriage ended many years ago, so the two men are no longer brothers-in-law. The chairmen of the search committee that recommended hiring Ribeau in 2008 said at the time that Rand disclosed the connection to the committee.

Rand said: “I have no idea what she’s talking about. ... But there’s nothing to it. I can’t say it more strongly than that.” Ribeau said he agrees.

All of this is very much inside baseball. But tensions on the board matter because they could affect Howard’s search for a successor to Ribeau. Any potential president will want to know whether there are possibly more fireworks to come from within the boardroom.

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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