Ribeau won friends at Howard U. even as questions arose about the school’s direction


Howard University President Sidney Ribeau is seen during a meeting in his office in this 2010 file photo. (Doug Kapustin/For The Washington Post)
October 1, 2013

Howard University’s 16th president, Sidney A. Ribeau, seemed to have little trouble winning friends on campus even as questions arose about whether the school was adrift under his five-year stewardship.

On Friday, Ribeau and university trustees donned academic gowns to welcome the Class of 2017 in a convocation in Cramton Auditorium. Outside, a couple dozen professors, students and staff members gathered for a demonstration to voice concern about the condition of the school they call the Mecca.

But there was no ire directed at Ribeau.

“I don’t have a beef with the president,” said Daryl P. Domning, an anatomy professor. “He’s been more open than his predecessors in dealing with the faculty. A reasonable guy. I don’t think he’s the source of the problems. It’s the Board of Trustees.”

Cameron Clarkson, 21, a senior from Minnesota, said students wanted more dialogue with the board and the administration. “We’re not looking to have anybody fired,” he said. Of Ribeau, Clarkson said: “He’s a good man. He’s dedicated to his job. You can tell he genuinely cares.”

On Tuesday, Ribeau announced that he is retiring after what has been a difficult few years, with ups and downs in student enrollment, administrative turnover, an open dispute on the Board of Trustees and a decline in the U.S. News & World Report national rankings.

But Ribeau’s tenure also spans a trying time throughout higher education — a financial crisis, a recession and an uneven economic recovery that have tested colleges and universities everywhere.

“I feel good about this time right now at Howard, the tough times we’ve managed,” Ribeau told The Post. “I need not talk to you about the horizon of higher education, how tough it is. We’ve come together, and we’re pointed in the right direction.”

Ribeau, 65, was named president in May 2008, after 13 years at the helm of Bowling Green State University in Ohio. A native of Detroit, Ribeau holds master’s and doctoral degrees in communications from the University of Illinois. He is married and a father of three.

Ribeau began his term in August 2008 with a mandate to renew Howard, academically and administratively.

One of his major accomplishments was an overhaul of Howard’s academic offerings, a plan approved in 2011 to phase out weak programs so the university could concentrate on its strengths. Out were bachelor’s degrees in anthropology, classical civilization and fashion merchandising. In were investments in science, technology, engineering, math and other fields. Ribeau sought to deepen scholarship in subjects such as the African diaspora, health disparities, internationalism and urban education.

Such restructuring is no easy feat for any institution in which tenured faculty guard the traditions of departments and schools.

Ribeau also sought to revamp administration and improve financial controls. Those efforts, including a round of staff layoffs in June, drew mixed reviews. Supporters said budgets have been balanced, year after year, and that independent audits have confirmed progress in putting the university’s financial affairs in order.

Moody’s Investors Service downgraded Howard’s credit rating in September, saying that the university’s revenues are under significant pressure and that its management is in jeopardy of falling behind on a cost-containment plan.

There has been administrative flux under Ribeau. As of this week, six of the 13 academic deans listed on a university Web site are interim appointees. The chief financial officer, independent consultant Robert M. Tarola, was retained through a month-to-month contract in 2010, an unusual arrangement in higher education.

Ribeau is closely linked with board Chairman Addison Barry Rand.

A few weeks after he was named president, it was revealed that Ribeau and Rand shared a connection: Rand had once been married to Ribeau’s sister, a marriage that ended many years before.

Rand, chief executive of AARP and chairman of Howard’s board since 2006, said he did not bring Ribeau forward as a candidate and recused himself from the board vote to hire him. Rand recalled in July that he had fallen out of touch with Ribeau after they were no longer brothers-in-law. “I didn’t even know he was a college president,” Rand told The Washington Post. Ribeau said Rand’s account squared with his own recollection.

The co-chairmen of the presidential search committee, former secretary of state and retired Gen. Colin L. Powell and businessman Richard Parsons, wrote in June 2008 that Rand had disclosed the connection to the committee and that he participated in deliberations at their request. Ribeau was chosen based on “his superb qualifications,” Powell and Parsons wrote.

Ribeau frequently proclaims his Christian beliefs. A university Web page notes that on Sunday mornings he gives short talks, called “Words of Faith,” on Howard’s WHUR-FM radio station. At the event Friday, Ribeau urged students to look inside themselves for “the God that you know” to find strength in difficult times.

“The time that you need the most to look at the inside is when the storm clouds are the greatest,” Ribeau said. “Your presence today at this convocation says that there are a lot of believers right here in this room, and believers in Howard University.”

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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