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Nikole Hannah-Jones, Ta-Nehisi Coates appointments signal new era for Howard University

The recent growth at Howard University comes a few years after students waged a nine-day protest over conditions at the school and called for their president’s resignation

A young man reads near the Founders Library on the Howard University campus in Washington, D.C., on July 6. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)
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The past year has been very good to Howard University.

One of its alumna — Kamala D. Harris — ascended to the vice presidency, the first graduate of a historically Black college or university to do so. The school, once beset with financial problems, has secured several multimillion dollar donations. It launched new academic programs, a women’s center and a coronavirus vaccine clinic that has inoculated more than 40,000 people.

And last week, the university scored a coup, announcing Nikole Hannah-Jones and Ta-Nehisi Coates as new faculty. Hannah-Jones picked the D.C. school after a long, contentious effort by her alma mater, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, to recruit her.

All of these developments came during a time of campus closures triggered by the coronavirus pandemic and protests over racial justice. They also materialized just three years after Howard students waged a nine-day protest over conditions at the school and called for their president’s resignation.

Through years of improvements, ongoing pressure from students and faculty and a plan crafted under President Wayne A. I. Frederick’s leadership, some on campus say Howard has transformed into the type of school that can attract large donations and, now, famous faculty. The high-profile hires of Hannah-Jones and Coates excited many on and off campus and signaled another shift for the historically Black institution in the nation’s capital.

“There have been a lot of remarkable wins that keep us motivated,” said Kylie Burke, a rising senior and student body president. “Students are excited; they’re excited to come back to campus.”

Many outside the university see Howard’s achievements as an example of the kind of recovery that can occur across the country at historically Black colleges, which have been systematically underfunded and neglected.

“I think this is a renaissance for Black colleges,” said Michael L. Lomax, president and chief executive of the United Negro College Fund (UNCF). “I think that people are going to see that with these visible appointments that Howard is going to become, once again, a nationally recognized platform for creativity, for insight, for voice to the Black community, and it’s going to be joined by a number of other institutions.”

A clear vision

Hannah-Jones’s job offer at UNC was falling apart. Despite resounding support from faculty and administrators, the university’s board of trustees delayed for months a vote to award the New York Times journalist the job protection of tenure.

The reasons behind the delay remain unclear, though some reports indicate there was political opposition aimed at Hannah-Jones’s 1619 Project — the seminal work that sought to reexamine American history and the consequences of slavery and has faced backlash from conservatives. An investigation by the Assembly found that a major UNC donor and namesake of the university’s journalism school had raised questions last year about plans to hire Hannah-Jones, though he later said he had not tried to influence the school.

Nikole Hannah-Jones’s tenure saga highlights lack of Black journalism instructors, students say

UNC trustees finally voted June 30 — one day before Hannah-Jones’s appointment was initially scheduled to start — to award her with tenure. But days later, she said she had declined the offer and would go to Howard, where she will found a Center for Journalism and Democracy and serve as the school’s inaugural Knight chair in race and journalism, a tenured role.

That position, like the one she had been set to take on at UNC, is supported by the Knight Foundation.

“I was very intentional in making that choice, and I hope that it will help others to consider that maybe they can take their talents to HBCUs as well,” Hannah-Jones said in an interview. “I am going to be joining an already excellent faculty at Howard, at a school that is already producing amazing journalists. But I certainly know it is rare for someone at my point in my career to go into a historically Black college.”

Historically Black schools have traditionally struggled to secure the large-scale donations that fund academic centers and endowed professorships seen at predominantly White schools, said Lomax. Many prominent Black professors have been drawn to those elite institutions: philosopher Cornel West has spent the bulk of his career teaching within the Ivy League; author Toni Morrison taught at Princeton University, writer Jelani Cobb, who formerly taught at Spelman College, now holds the Ira A. Lipman professorship at Columbia University’s journalism school.

But Howard raised nearly $20 million — from an anonymous donor, as well as the Knight Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Ford Foundation — in a matter of weeks to support Coates and Hannah-Jones.

“Five years ago, we would not have been (as) nimble an organization or stable enough to be able to do that. We certainly are now,” said Frederick, who has led the university since 2014. “I would also say that we’ve had a clear vision. We’ve been implementing a strategic plan.”

Is this Howard University’s tipping point?

That plan has delivered infrastructure upgrades to campus, from widening Internet access to modernizing aging residence halls. It birthed a program that matches federal Pell grant awards for students from low-income families and has helped Howard’s four-year graduation rate grow from about 40 percent in 2014 to 52 percent, the most recent data show. About 64 percent of students graduate within six years.

The university’s hospital has recovered after years of financial bleeding, Frederick said. “Now you have a medical center that is poised for great things,” Frederick said. Howard was also one of a handful of HBCUs that received coronavirus testing equipment from Thermo Fisher Scientific.

“I would argue that those things laid the foundation for the results that we’re seeing today,” Frederick said. “When I took over the university, the university was in a very difficult place, and what I needed to do was to make sure that I took care of some of the fundamentals first. That included things like academic excellence, raising our graduation rate so we had a story to go out to tell funders to get donations.”

‘Transformational’: MacKenzie Scott’s gifts to HBCUs, other colleges surpass $800 million

The changes at Howard are being felt by other HBCUs, which have received renewed attention and investment, said Lomax. Author and philanthropist Mackenzie Scott has donated nearly $1 billion to historically Black schools — including $40 million to Howard, a record for the school; $40 million to Morgan State University in Baltimore and $50 million to Prairie View A&M University in Texas — as well as other minority-serving institutions. When Netflix chief executive, Reed Hastings, and his wife, Patty Quillin, donated $120 million to UNCF, Spelman College and Morehouse College last year, they encouraged other donors to do the same.

With more financial support, Lomax said the talent will follow. “The new awareness of HBCUs is going to attract more visitation, more going on the campuses, more learning about what’s actually going on there,” he said. “Watch out American higher education, HBCUs are sharp-elbowing our way onto center stage.”

As Howard continues to navigate this era, students said they will remain at the forefront of calls for change. Students occupied the university’s administration building in 2015 over concerns about financial aid, housing, unreliable WiFi and other issues. They took over the building again in 2018 and staged a nine-day protest, with demands that included greater access to student housing, the disarming of campus police and an end to substantiated tuition increases. The demonstration ended in a deal between students and school officials, who agreed to meet most of their demands.

As turmoil continues at Howard University, its president tells students: ‘I am listening to you’

“At the end of the day, the current students have an obligation to fight to improve the university,” said Burke, the student government president.

Still, relations remain fraught between students and administrators, said Leslie Wynter, a rising senior. “A lot of times it feels like our voices aren’t being heard and they want it that way,” she said. Burke said school officials have made progress toward transparency, but those efforts have fallen short of some students’ expectations.

Some faculty also feel left out of important decisions that affect the university, said Marcus Alfred, associate professor in physics and astronomy and chair of the faculty senate. “The HU board and the administration have created a climate that is hostile to some of our best scholars,” he said.

Frank Tramble, a Howard spokesman, said the university supports faculty and pointed to recent salary raises and another set of increases planned for the fall semester.” The president made it a priority not to lay off anyone during the pandemic,” Tramble said.

Long-standing concerns over the way the school treats survivors of sexual assault were put on display when College of Fine Arts dean and actress Phylicia Rashad — another recent high-profile hire — shared her support for “The Cosby Show” co-star Bill Cosby after the Pennsylvania Supreme Court vacated his sexual assault conviction. Upon Cosby’s release from prison Rashad, in a now-deleted tweet, wrote: “FINALLY!!!! A terrible wrong is being righted- a miscarriage of justice is corrected!”

The backlash — from students and others outside the Howard community — was swift. The issue was personal for Aliya J’mari, a 2016 graduate who said she had trouble getting help from school officials when a professor physically assaulted her during her senior year. Trusted deans and professors are often a student’s first point of contact after an assault, she said.

“I just felt a little sad for the students that are at Howard now that are going to be up under her leadership,” J’mari said, adding that faculty should undergo regular training on how to support survivors and direct them to the appropriate resources.

Phylicia Rashad, a Howard University dean, issues apology over Cosby statement

Rashad in a message to students apologized for the remarks and said she planned to “participate in trainings to not only reinforce university protocol and conduct, but also to learn how I can be a stronger ally to sexual assault survivors and everyone who has suffered at the hands of an abuser.” The university disavowed Rashad’s comments in a statement.

Campus leaders acknowledge there is room for improvement but also stand by the recent successes at Howard. Those accomplishments send a message, said Lomax of the United Negro College Fund.

“I think it’s going to reverberate across Black America, and I think it’s going to resonate for a lot of Black achievers,” Lomax said. “I think we’re going to see a lot of talent saying, ‘This is where I want to invest a part of my life.’”