Howard U. loyalists back new leadership after abrupt retirement of President Sidney Ribeau

Doug Kapustin/For The Washington Post - Howard University President Sidney Ribeau is seen during a meeting in his office in this 2010 file photo.

Frank Savage, a plugged-in alumnus of Howard University, offered two reactions to the sudden leadership transition at his alma mater this week.

The former chairman of the university’s Board of Trustees, a graduate of the class of 1962, had some brief words of gratitude for the retiring president, Sidney A. Ribeau, who announced his exit Tuesday evening after five years at the helm.

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“I respect his decision,” Savage said Wednesday. “And we wish him well. We appreciate his many contributions to Howard University.”

And Savage had effusive praise for the new interim president, Wayne A.I. Frederick, and others in the administration of the 10,330-student university in Northwest Washington.

“We are fortunate to have a very strong team of executives that are available to manage the school,” he said. “They have my total, unqualified support. I absolutely believe in them. We will back this team 100 percent.”

Yet questions lingered after Ribeau’s retirement announcement:

■ Did the Board of Trustees force the move? Ribeau said no, but the board has not publicly addressed the issue.

■ How much will the university pay to buy out Ribeau’s contract? Ribeau declined to say, and the board did not publicly address that issue, either.

■ Has the board fully settled the internal debate that led to a sharp public rift between its chairman, Addison Barry Rand, and vice chairwoman, Renee Higginbotham-Brooks? Again, there was no word.

But Savage’s comments, echoed elsewhere, showed there was an eagerness Wednesday in the Howard community to move past management and governance issues that accumulated toward the end of Ribeau’s tenure and to give the university a fresh start.

“What’s done is done,” one person wrote on the Howard University Alumni Association’s Facebook page. “As alumni, we need to move forward constructively with the interim leadership and help inform the process that will select the next president. We’ve got a duty to be informed about what’s going on and not to listen to or spread rumors and conjecture.”

Rand, who was unavailable for comment Wednesday, wrote in an open letter that Howard plans a national search for its 17th president. The historically black university, founded in 1867, is likely to seek a leader with fundraising prowess who can capi­tal­ize on the sesquicentennial that is approaching in 2017.

Rand praised Frederick, who had previously been the provost and chief academic officer, as “a scholar, surgeon, researcher and respected administrator.” Rand also wrote that two senior executives will continue in their positions: Kurt L. Schmoke, the general counsel, who is a former dean of the Howard School of Law and a former mayor of Baltimore; and Artis Hampshire-Cowan, senior vice president and secretary.

Howard operates as a private institution but receives major funding from the federal government. The board’s proceedings are private. Its minutes are generally kept confidential, and its public communications are tightly controlled.

For the most part, calls and e-mails to trustees were not returned Wednesday. The board has 33 members, according to its Web site, including former Virginia governor L. Douglas Wilder (D), Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed (D) and well-known attorney Vernon E. Jordan Jr. Alphonso Jackson, who was secretary of Housing and Urban Development under President George W. Bush, is among the newest trustees.

A person who answered the phone at one trustee’s house referred all questions to Rand.

Richard Wright, a professor of communications who is a board member, said he could only speak as a member of the faculty. Wright said there were “a lot of mixed feelings” on campus because Ribeau was well-liked.

But Wright said he and others on the faculty were eager for Frederick to spread a positive message about Howard. “I’d say his biggest challenge is restoring our sense of the strength of the university, restoring the reputation of the university . . . bringing back confidence in all of the good things that we’re doing.”

 
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