Howard University

Howard University’s presence in Washington is critical to the city’s civic lifeblood. So when I read the headline in Saturday’s Post – that the hallowed university was in danger of closing – it stopped me cold.

I can’t imagine this city without Howard- it’s part of the fabric of this city as much as the White House and the monuments.  And while many have dismissed as hyperbole trustee Renee Higginbotham-Brooks’s siren call in a letter to the school’s board in which she stated, “Howard will not be here in three years if we don’t make some crucial decisions now,” the fact that she brought it up at all is an indication that there are real problems on the hilltop. In a response to the letter Monday, board chairman Addison Barry Rand said, “I want to assure you that … Howard University remains academically, financially and operationally strong.”

No matter whom you believe, one thing is clear: this airing of dirty laundry has led to a conversation among students and alums alike about what the real Howard experience is. Old  wounds regarding an understanding gap between students and those in the Mordecai Johnson Administration Building have been brought to light.

Jephree White, a 2008 grad, explained why this is a major source of tension on campus. “One, enough students didn’t know about the financial workings of the University. Everyone believed that once you paid your tuition and associated costs, that covered everything and the University was supposed to magically make things happen after that,” White said in an e-mail. “I believe the second part of the problem, was that for those who did know about the financial situation, they either didn’t care or weren’t able to effectively communicate the information in ways to make other students care.”

It’s a feeling that still permeates campus today. Torrell Mills, a senior political science and philosophy double major from Las Vegas, still has faith in his school, but thinks students could do a better job of staying informed. “I think that there’s always been a historical and traditional sense of opposition for administration at Howard. Because, you pay all this money as a struggling college student to come here. All the records from everything from all the tuition and fees that way we pay, to who’s getting paid how much, to the CFO and the president’s salary – everything is localized and online,” Mills said. “A lot of students don’t understand where their funds are being appropriated to, so you have to blame someone when there’s conflict. There’s always going to be someone to point the finger at. And it’s easy for us to target the administration.”

Howard’s importance to the fabric of the city is unparalleled. Homecoming alone is an event that has taken on national significance, but as an institution, it represents a level of distinction that black Washington has taken pride in for generations. If you consider people like Addison Scurlock, who was the university’s photographer and documented D.C. at the turn of the century, the school has been integral in keeping the city’s history alive.

It’s still a draw for high school students who want an experience in the nation’s capital steeped in tradition. But what that tradition is these days, is in question. D.C. Council member Yvette Alexander, (D-Ward 7) believes the school could do more to help itself. “It’s not realistic that Howard University is going to be off the map at all. I think this is a wake-up call to a lot of people. I think that everyone needs to step up. But I have noticed through the years, I think Howard needs to come back, to join forces with alumni. I can tell you, at homecomings of late, I haven’t felt that sense of home,” Alexander, a graduate of the School of Business said. “I think they’ve lost a sense of family and unity and a lot of people have felt detached over the years.”

For a university of its stature and reputation, with so many alums still in the area, one would think financial troubles would be the last thing besetting the school known as ‘The Mecca.’ Maybe this spotlight on the school’s brass, even if an absurd speculative doomsday scenario, will finally lead to effective change on campus and in turn motivate more students and alums to give back.

Frederick Uku, who attended Howard from 1998-2002, wasn’t surprised at all that things haven’t changed since his time on the hilltop, but does consider his experience a good one. “There’s a handful of administrators at Howard that get it, and will bend over backwards to genuinely help students that are in need. … A lot of people, when it comes to what they will remember fondly about Howard University, is 9 times out of 10, the social activities. The social aspect. Maybe a few of them will say I had this really awesome professor, I really learned a lot, I met my future wife there, I met my lifelong friends there,” Uku, who now lives in Arlington, said.

“But ask any former Howard student,” Uku said. Referring to the school’s infamous administration building, he added: “Just say, ‘what do you think about the A-Building?’ And they’ll just roll their eyes and tell you that it’s a giant morass of nonsense.”