August 30, 2013

It is ironic that Daniel Burnett’s Aug. 23 op-ed, “ Can Howard’s leaders steer clear of the iceberg? ,” surfaced the week of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, during which serious thinkers engaged in thoughtful discussion on the status of higher education and historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) such as Howard University. Burnett’s commentary, meanwhile, characterized Howard in an ahistoric and superficial manner, and it deserves a response that puts into context the issues he raised.

Howard University has helped define the democratic and humanitarian contours of our nation and helped it through its darkest days of segregation and denial of basic rights to its black population. The scholarship and service of its faculty continues to contribute to the development of the global community, and Howard remains the most important source of diversification in U.S. higher education.

A Howard education remains in high demand. More than 26,000 undergraduate, graduate and professional students applied for fall admission this year. Last month, Howard welcomed its second largest freshman class — 1,594 students from more than 12,000 applicants — in more than 15 years. The Class of 2017 has an exceptional cohort of 682 scholarship recipients with an average high school grade-point average and SAT score of 3.49 and 1221, respectively. The SAT score is 350 points above the national average for African American test takers, and higher than the national average.

Howard is academically strong and remains indispensable to our nation’s ability to achieve its higher-education agenda, especially where diversity is concerned. Howard graduates more on-campus African American PhDs than any other university in the country and adds much-needed diversity to our nation’s researchers, scholars and the professoriate. Howard also tops the nation’s rankings for African American baccalaureate graduates who go on to earn PhDs in science, technology, engineering and mathematics , areas of national priority. Howard students include more than 50 African American Gates Millennium Scholars, again more than any other university in the country.

On May 11, former president Bill Clinton stood in front of Howard’s Founder’s Library and addressed graduates during commencement. Among them were 36 percent of our nation’s newly graduated black dentists and 96 PhD recipients. On that day, more than 100 physicians graduated from Howard’s College of Medicine. One hundred percent of Howard’s pharmacy graduates passed their board exams. Howard’s School of Law is known for its quality and social impact, including its contributions to the intellectual and jurisprudential foundations and advocacy associated with the historic March on Washington.

Rigorous academic review continues to refine and focus Howard’s degree offerings, including the consolidation and elimination of programs and the creation of new ones based on demand and national and international need. Howard’s breadth of degree programs reflects its history of providing educational opportunities to black Americans when they were denied them at universities previously reserved for whites. While Burnett noted that the American Council of Trustees and Alumniassigned Howard’s general education program a C grade, readers might benefit from knowing that the council gave Harvard and Yale D grades, Brown an F, and Emory, like Howard, a C.

Howard and other HBCUs are a critically important portal of opportunity for students. Howard’s $21,450 undergraduate tuition is half that of other leading universities in its accreditation category. Notwithstanding this fact, and in recognition of its unique mission and the financial status of its students and families, Howard froze undergraduate tuition for 2013-14 and made merit and need-based financial aid available to more than 90 percent of its students — ensuring their access to a Howard education. More than 55 percent of our entering freshmen qualify for Pell Grants, for which only the most economically needy students are eligible.

Howard’s financial strength and stability are a foundation for its ability to continue to deliver on its historic mission. Howard has had a positive operating balance for each of the past four years, including $12 million in the most recent fiscal year. The university’s $510 million endowment is 159th out of 833 colleges and universities ranked in the country. The Education Department recently reviewed the financial strength of the nation’s private universities and awarded Howard University a score of 2.8 out of a possible 3.

There is no iceberg on the horizon that involves Howard University, and there is no need to artificially create one. As we count down to our sesquicentennial anniversary in 2017, Howard will continue to carry out its unique mission, serve the needs of its students and remain an indispensable American institution.

The writer is president of Howard University.