October 18, 2013

RECENT MONTHS have seen a series of unsettling events at Howard University. U.S. News and World Report lowered its ranking, Moody’s downgraded its credit rating, a top trustee warned of internal strife and, most recently, the president announced his resignation. The storied university seems to be at a crossroads, challenged to preserve its legacy while meeting the needs of the future.

The announcement this month by President Sidney A. Ribeau that he would step down surprised many at the university. He has held the post for five years and had just signed an agreement that would have extended his tenure through spring 2015. Issues had surfaced in April with the release of a letter from Renee Higginbotham-Brooks, vice chairwoman of the board of trustees, who warned that “Howard will not be here in three years if we don’t make crucial decisions now.”

Her concerns appeared to be seconded by the university’s deans, who in June alleged that fiscal problems, partly caused by cutbacks to federal loans and aid, threatened the school’s future. And, as The Post’s Nick Anderson reported, the Faculty Senate on Wednesday voted no confidence in the board’s executive committee.

There have been some encouraging signs. A financial advisory firm has been retained to help sort out the state of Howard's hospital, whose troubles led to Moody’s downgrade. A range of options from a joint operating agreement to a possible sale is on the table, although officials hope to safeguard the institution’s role in the school and community.

Howard officials point to a rebound in enrollment, with the school recently welcoming the second-largest freshman class in 15 years, and construction of new buildings as evidence of health. Nonetheless, it’s clear that Howard, like other historically black colleges, is in the uncomfortable stages of reshaping an institution that no longer can rely on being a destination of choice for top black students. Its glorious roll of alumni reflects the fact that those students — unlike top black students today — were limited in where they could go to college. As it faces more competition, Howard has to become more competitive.

That probably will mean making some hard decisions. Programs that may be sentimental favorites but have outlived their usefulness must be eliminated, along with surplus staff. As the trustees begin their search for Howard’s next president, they should think carefully about the university’s goals and what type of leader can achieve them.