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Correction to This Article
This article about changes at Howard University incorrectly said that Howard has the only freestanding philosophy department at a historically black college. There is at least one other, at Xavier University of Louisiana.
Howard in flux: An HBCU reinvents itself

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 13, 2010; 10:23 PM

Howard University is concluding the broadest academic review in its 143-year history, hoping to shed weak programs and bolster strong ones in order to compete in the increasingly fierce contest for America's top black scholars.

Howard offers 171 academic programs, an uncommonly large number for a university of 10,500 students. The range is a product of the institution's historic role as the epicenter of African American scholarship. But university leaders believe that the sheer number of offerings has become unwieldy, draining resources better spent pursuing excellence in core areas.

Howard will still turn out many of the nation's African American doctors and dentists, psychologists and engineers. But the university is considering cutting its undergraduate programs in philosophy, anthropology, the classics and even African studies - a specialty with symbolic importance to many in the Howard community. The school is keeping African American studies.

Altogether, Howard President Sidney Ribeau has proposed closing or reducing 20 undergraduate degree programs and at least that many graduate programs, based on recommendations forwarded by a Presidential Commission on Academic Renewal after a year-long review.

"You can't do everything at once," said Ribeau, who became the university's president in 2008.

Similar exercises in "academic renewal," driven by market forces and dwindling state funds, have happened at other colleges. But few have been so closely watched.

"The direction Howard goes in, that's the direction the African American community and the diaspora will go in. There's a lot of weight on it," said Brandon Harris, 21, a junior who is president of Howard's student association.

The tough choices at Howard reflect changing times for the nation's 105 historically black colleges and universities. Black colleges once held a monopoly on black students. Today, HBCUs compete with everyone else for the college-bound African American.

Top-tier schools - including Howard, Hampton University and Spelman and Morehouse colleges - vie with Harvard and Princeton for top black students and faculty. "Howard has positioned itself as a college that wants to attract the best and the brightest," said Michael Lomax, CEO of the United Negro College Fund. "There is a lot of competition for those students."

Some of the programs identified for possible reduction at Howard turn out only one or two degrees a year. Others have a faint pulse of academic scholarship, or duplicate the offerings of other departments. Some simply don't fit the school's mission as a hub of scholarship for the African diaspora.

Academic renewal has sparked passionate debate on campus. Few dispute the need to pare down the 171 programs. But when it comes to defending their own turf, some faculty members are less than magnanimous.

Ribeau proposes to close the bachelor's program in African studies, which yields about two degrees a year. A larger graduate program would be expanded. Still, some faculty members perceive retrenchment in a signature discipline.

"If it is eliminated, we fear it might send the wrong message to other institutions around the country and around the world as far as what Howard is about, what Howard stands for," said Mbye Cham, the department's chairman.

Ribeau also would discontinue the philosophy major, possibly merging the department with two others devoted to classics and religious studies.

Howard's is the only freestanding philosophy department at a historically black college and a major source of Africana philosophy; it was once chaired by Alain Locke, the first African American Rhodes scholar. A Save Howard Philosophy petition has attracted more than a thousand signatures.

"Any serious university ought to have a philosophy department," said Kwame Anthony Appiah, chairman of the American Philosophical Association.

The classics major is among Howard's oldest, originating with a group of African American intellectuals who met to read Greek and Latin.

Howard is the only historically black school with a classics department. It has produced a Rhodes scholar and engaging events such as a two-day marathon reading of "The Iliad." The department graduates about seven students a year.

Howard leaders say they recognize the university's role as a pipeline of black scholars. Howard is the leading producer of on-campus African American doctorates and the nation's only historically black institution identified as a first-tier "Research I" university.

Critics "make the arguments that without Howard, their disciplines would not be as diverse. To a large extent, that's true, " said Alvin Thornton, a renowned Howard scholar who led the academic review under Ribeau. "The question is, can Howard continue to be the source of that diversity across such a broad list of disciplines?"

The consensus is that it cannot. Instead, university leaders want to concentrate limited resources on a shorter list of programs with high-quality faculty and research, sustainable enrollment and adequate facilities.

Howard's academic programs multiplied during the two-decade tenure of President James Cheek, who tripled graduate programs while building the university into a major research institution in the 1970s and 1980s. But some programs, stymied by inadequate resources and archaic facilities, struggled from the start.

Howard is known today for professional programs in medicine and law, dentistry and nursing. Other strong graduate programs include social work, psychology, business and pharmacology.

To compete, Ribeau said, those programs need modern classrooms, state-of-the-art labs and first-rate, well-paid faculty. That can come only at the cost of running fewer programs and paying fewer professors, he said. He has promised that all cuts to tenured faculty will come through attrition.

Many of the proposed reductions come in areas, such as hospitality management and nutritional sciences, that Howard students might study at nearby community colleges. Ribeau said he wants to explore similar partnerships with four-year colleges.

The final academic renewal plan will be published next month. It will refocus Howard on research that resonates among Africans and African Americans: clean water, AIDS and cancer, urban education, public policy.

Ribeau also wants to stress science, technology, engineering and math, answering the national call for more minority scholars in those fields. That is a controversial stance, particularly among humanities scholars. Disciplines such as philosophy and classics are essential, they say, to the character-building at the core of a Howard education.

"I'm just worried about the conception of education that's being put forward here," said Eddie Glaude, chairman of the Center for African American Studies at Princeton.

Ribeau and Thornton, the architects of Howard's transformation plan, feel all the talk of cuts has overshadowed significant proposed improvements.

One goal, universally embraced, is to break down the strict divisions between the school's academic departments and usher in a new era of "interdisciplinarity," with departments sharing faculty and dollars, collaborating on teaching and research, and eliminating duplication.

Another proposal would build on Howard's elaborate system of academic checks and balances to ensure students learn the basics. New summer and winter "bridge" programs and first-year English and math seminars would push all freshmen toward proficiency, with progress measured in frequent assessments. Every student would have a mentor in a field of interest. More faculty would live near campus.

"We wanted to make sure that we were the best," Ribeau said, "so that we could attract and prepare the best."

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