Howard University’s board of trustees announced Monday that veteran Washington lawyer Vernon E. Jordan Jr. will lead a presidential search committee charged with replacing Sidney A. Ribeau, who retired abruptly last year after months of internal debate over the condition of the university.
Howard, one of the nation’s preeminent historically black universities, weathered a series of challenges in 2013.
First the vice chairwoman of the board, Renee Higginbotham-Brooks, warned trustees that the university in Northwest Washington was in “genuine trouble” because of fiscal and management issues. Her letter became public in June. The university’s academic deans echoed some of her concerns in another letter asserting that Howard was in jeopardy because of “fiscal mismanagement.”
Ribeau denied that allegation, and board Chairman Addison Barry Rand has maintained that the university is in strong shape. But Howard’s credit rating was downgraded by Moody’s Investors Service, and its ranking fell significantly on an annual U.S. News & World Report list of top national universities. Ribeau announced his retirement on Oct. 1, a few months after he had signed a contract extension to serve through June 2015.
Jordan, himself a trustee and a graduate of Howard’s law school, said such issues would not hinder the quest to find a new president. He drew a comparison to the leadership upheaval at Penn State University after a child sex-abuse scandal.
“Penn State had to find a president in a situation that far exceeds our situation,” Jordan said. “And they did.” He said disagreements on boards and controversies on college campuses are common.
Jordan, who served on the committee that recommended hiring Ribeau in 2008, said the new search committee has no timetable. “We are not in a hurry,” Jordan said. “But we know that it is urgent.”
Among the qualifications for a new president, Jordan said: “You need leadership. You need academic qualifications. You need academic experience. You need management experience.”
Howard will mark its 150th birthday in 2017, a milestone likely to be the subject of a fundraising campaign. That probably would be a key task for whoever is chosen to lead the 10,297-student university.
Sixteen other search committee members were announced Monday. Among them are trustees Benaree P. Wiley, Leslie Hale, Marian Johnson-Thompson, Robert L. Lumpkins, Mark A.L. Mason, Stacey J. Mobley and M. Kasim Reed, who is mayor of Atlanta. Other members include Kamala D. Harris, who is attorney general of California, and Danette G. Howard, Maryland’s secretary of higher education. Two members of the committee will be chosen by Howard’s faculty senate.
Neither Rand nor Higginbotham-Brooks is on the committee.
“A deliberative search process offers an important opportunity to understand and clarify the priorities and challenges of the University, to unify key stakeholders, and to plan the future course,” Rand said in a statement.
“It’s a very balanced committee,” Higginbotham-Brooks said.
The interim president of Howard is Wayne A.I. Frederick, who served as provost under Ribeau.
Asked in October if he would be a candidate for the permanent position, Frederick said: “My focus is to really get the job done as the job is laid out right now. I think once we get to that issue of the national search I’ll consult with my family, as I always do, and make a decision at that point.” He could not be reached for comment Monday.