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Can Howard’s leaders steer clear of the iceberg?

With Howard University facing a possible downgrade of its credit rating, it’s clear that innovative and substantive change needs to happen at this storied and historic campus — and it needs to happen fast.

The challenges are substantial, but the biggest is surely a lack of unified direction.

In an April letter to the board of trustees, board Vice Chairwoman Renee Higginbotham-Brooks called attention to the dire fiscal situation and warned that “Howard will not be here in three years if we don’t make some crucial decisions now.” Board Chairman Addison Barry Rand responded with a sunny report designed to assuage any worries.

Even the faculty jumped into the fray, with the Council of Deans calling for the dismissal of the school’s chief financial officer, citing as reasons the loss of its ranking as one of the top 100 U.S. research institutions (as rated by the Center for Measuring University Performance), a decline in research expenditures and a decline in enrollment.

Like institutions all across the country, Howard confronts difficult choices in the face of tough economic conditions and a federal appropriation that’s no longer as large and predictable.

Nothing less than Howard’s prestige as a premier historically black university is at stake. And it will take more than a shake-up at the administrative level to fix the urgent problems.

Tuition has jumped 40 percent in five years. Enrollment dropped 5 percent last fall, to 10,002 students. The four-year graduation rate is only 45 percent. Administrative spending grew six times faster than instructional spending between 2006 and 2011.

And sadly, academic quality remains patchy.

The school gets just a “C” grade from the American Council of Trustees and Alumni’s “What Will They Learn?” assessment of core curricula. Howard graduates can enter the workforce without taking a single college-level course in literature, economics, science or U.S. history and government. Should students and families be expected to pay more than $20,000 a year for a curriculum that demands little more knowledge of these crucial subjects than that of a high school graduate?

So what is the response from Howard leadership?

Howard President Sidney A. Ribeau: “There is not any kind of mismanagement administratively or financially that is damaging the university.”

Howard trustee Robert Lumpkins: “My view is that the university is in the best financial condition that it has been in in the last five years.”

Looming icebergs don’t melt just because captains pretend they’re not there. Howard leadership — the president, CFO, Council of Deans and trustees — must come together to avert trouble before the ship sinks.

In January, the board voted unanimously to freeze tuition, and that’s a good start. But more must be done. Rather than building new buildings — even now, two student residence halls and an interdisciplinary research building are under construction at a total budgeted cost of $177 million — the trustees should find ways to reduce spending on capital projects. Higginbotham-Brooks also pointed out that the university employs approximately one person for every two students at the university. Cutting bloated administrative spending and renewing efforts to close duplicative or unpopular programs could save the university millions.

Howard offered 72 baccalaureate programs in the 2011-12 school year. Fully 37 programs had fewer than 10 graduates, including 21 programs that had not a single graduate.

It’s time for Howard University leaders to make tough decisions to ensure that the institution can continue to operate — and the board must have the courage to address the difficult issues ahead. The students of Howard are counting on it.

The writer is press secretary of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.

 
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