Howard University President Sidney A. Ribeau abruptly stepped down Tuesday after months of internal debate over the management and financial health of one of the nation’s premier historically black universities.
Ribeau, in office for five years, announced his retirement “from our beloved institution” after a tense three-day Board of Trustees meeting at the Northwest Washington campus that ended Saturday. He said he would officially leave the presidency at the end of December.
His departure follows two developments last month that many Howard boosters found dispiriting: a drop for the university in a major national ranking, and a downgrade in its credit rating. It also came a year after enrollment at the university suddenly fell 5 percent.
Ribeau, 65, had just this summer signed a contract extension to serve through June 2015, but he said Tuesday that he was not forced out.
“This is the time, this is the season, for me to retire from the presidency,” he told The Washington Post. He said the university had made progress on an ambitious agenda in a challenging economic time. “We’re focused, we’re back on track and the momentum is building.”
Ribeau declined to discuss what the university will pay to buy out his contract. He earned $759,340 in total compensation in the fiscal year that ended in June 2012, according to the university’s federal tax return.
The announcement, several weeks into the fall term, took some on campus by surprise.“I was quite astonished,” said Lorenzo Morris, a political science professor who chairs the Faculty Senate. He called Ribeau a “solid president” but said the transition could prove positive as the university shows that it is taking “a new direction in leadership.” But several older students and alumni who milled around the campus’s famed yard Tuesday evening said they saw Ribeau’s resignation coming. Tia Parchman, 20, a junior from Inglewood, Calif., said she hoped a change at the top will help fix longstanding administrative problems.“This may be a good thing for Howard,” she said of Ribeau’s retirement. “Hopefully somebody can come in and improve” relations with students. “Oftentimes, our requests are ignored.”
The board appointed Wayne A.I. Frederick, 42, Howard’s provost since June 2012, as interim president. Frederick, a professor of surgery and a cancer specialist at Howard’s College of Medicine, holds three Howard degrees.
The announcement of Ribeau’s exit came nearly four months after a rupture between the board’s two top leaders emerged, sending shock waves through the university community.
In a letter to trustees in April, disclosed in a June 7 published report, board Vice Chairwoman Renee Higginbotham-Brooks warned that Howard “is in genuine trouble.” The Texas attorney, a Howard graduate, cited concerns about fundraising, university hospital expenses and student enrollment, calling Ribeau’s job performance “lackluster.”
Board Chairman Addison Barry Rand, who is chief executive of AARP, replied on June 10 that Howard “remains academically, financially and operationally strong.” He said the vice chairwoman’s letter had painted “an unduly alarming picture of the university’s condition.”
The board rift put intense pressure on Ribeau and his administration.
Amid the turmoil, university officials have sought to reassure students, faculty and alumni. They described a cut this year of about 75 staff positions, including dozens of layoffs, as part of a retrenchment to improve efficiency. They pointed out that construction is underway on two new student residence halls on Fourth Street NW and an interdisciplinary research building on Georgia Avenue NW. Officials said the school’s endowment stood at $525 million in May, recovering from a steep drop after the 2008 national financial crisis.
Last week, the university welcomed its second-largest freshman class in 15 years and said that enrollment had risen 3 percent to more than 10,330, partially recovering from the previous plunge.
But the university’s image took a double blow in September.
First, its ranking on the U.S. News & World Report list of national universities continued a several-year slide, falling 22 places to 142nd. As recently as the 2009-2010 school year, Howard stood at 96th. Critics say the U.S. News rankings are arbitrary and misleading, but they remain influential as a gauge of prestige.
Second, Howard’s credit rating was downgraded on Sept. 24, from A3 to Baa1, in a pessimistic report from Wall Street analysts. Moody’s Investors Service cited “weak” fundraising, a university hospital with a “remarkably weak profile,” student enrollment fluctuations, deep federal budget cuts and questions about whether management can follow through on plans to cut costs.
Such developments raised alarms among loyalists of a school that the Fiske guidebook calls “the flagship university of black America.”
“We’re very upset,” said Marrel Foushee, of Chapel Hill, N.C. He said he earned a bachelor’s degree from Howard in 1974 and a master’s in 1977. “It’s terrible. The university is putting out propaganda. The real question from alumni is, what’s the real truth?”
Howard occupies a central place in the constellation of historically black colleges and universities. Founded in 1867 under a federal charter, the university counts the 19th-century abolitionist and social reformer Frederick Douglass among its early trustees and the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall among its alumni.
With schools of law, medicine and dentistry, Howard is a leading producer of advanced degrees for African Americans. The private institution also has a rare level of public support.
Congress has long approved special appropriations for Howard that far exceed federal funding for other historically black institutions. Howard’s line items in the federal budget have totaled as much as $234 million a year, or more than a quarter of the university’s annual spending plan in recent years. This year, that sum was cut to $222 million under the federal budget sequester, and it is unclear whether it will return to the previous level. University officials say the impact will hit hard.
Ribeau, a communications scholar who came to Howard after 13 years as president of Bowling Green State University in Ohio, pushed to overhaul Howard’s academic offerings. He engineered a phaseout of certain programs, such as a bachelor’s degree in fashion merchandising, in an effort to concentrate on core fields such as science, technology, engineering and math.
In June, Howard’s academic deans charged that “fiscal mismanagement is doing irreparable harm” to the university — a charge Ribeau strongly denied.
The deans urged the dismissal of Howard’s chief financial officer, Robert M. Tarola, who is an independent contractor. They alleged that the university was making staff cuts based on “inaccurate, misleading” data, and they raised questions about why PricewaterhouseCoopers this year terminated its work for Howard after serving as its external auditor for seven years. In October 2012, the firm reported “certain deficiencies in internal control over financial reporting” at Howard that it considered “material weaknesses.”
Staff writer Michael Livingston contributed to this report.