Howard U.’s fiscal debate: a closer look

History envelops Howard University. Consider Frederick Douglass Memorial Hall, a neoclassical academic building with a dome-shaped bell tower fronting the broad green of The Yard at the core of the campus. As a tour guide notes, the name etched above the columns at the entrance is not happenstance. The famed abolitionist and social reformer was a trustee of the federally chartered institution for more than two decades in the late 19th century.

Now, as the historically black university in Northwest Washington heads toward the 150th anniversary of its founding in 1867, trustees, administrators, faculty and others are pondering its future.

President Sidney A. Ribeau, head of Howard since 2008, his top deputies and two trustees spoke with The Washington Post for nearly two hours Saturday evening. The interview took place in advance of a story, published Tuesday, about a letter in which Howard’s academic deans contended that “fiscal mismanagement” was damaging the university. Ribeau vigorously denied that allegation.

Ribeau sought to frame the debate, which has been simmering for weeks as Howard confronts revenue shortages on multiple fronts, in terms of the university’s larger goals.

What has been missing, he said, is context.

“This is a journey,” Ribeau said, “the story of where we were moving to renew the legacy of Howard University.” The renewal, he said, is about academics, facilities, faculty and administration. “The whole renewal process was done in a way that was collaborative and transparent.”

Ribeau noted that the university’s financial statements, audits, credit agency reports, treasurer’s reports and tax returns are posted publicly online.

Howard’s academic renewal effort has received some notice already. In 2010 The Post covered how Ribeau was coordinating a phaseout of some of Howard’s weaker academic programs — such as bachelor’s degrees in anthropology, classical civilization and fashion merchandising — to concentrate resources on its strengths.

In addition, the university has offered faculty voluntary retirement incentives and spent millions of dollars to upgrade buildings such as Downing Hall, home of the engineering programs, and the College of Medicine, which has a new surgical simulation center.

Construction began in the spring on two student residential halls on Fourth Street NW, expected to cost $107 million, and an interdisciplinary research building on Georgia Avenue NW, budgeted at $70 million.

Administrative renewal, as Ribeau terms it, is getting intense scrutiny. In a nutshell, the concept is to reorganize management, services and systems so that the university functions more efficiently. In practice that has meant some staff cuts. Exactly how many is unclear. The university disclosed in June that it is cutting 75 non-faculty staff positions, which led to 53 layoffs as of June 7. The university had 3,636 non-faculty employees as of June 14.

Officials say that they have balanced budgets and significantly cut administrative overhead, improving on the fiscal conditions they inherited when Ribeau took office five years ago.

The academic deans, in their June 6 letter to trustees, urged a halt to administrative renewal and sought the dismissal of the university’s chief financial officer, Robert M. Tarola, who has held the job for more than three years as an independent contractor. They cited, among other issues, concerns connected to the decision of an external auditor, PricewaterhouseCoopers, to terminate its relationship with the university. They also said that budget cuts have “not resulted in improved operating conditions” for academic programs.

After meeting with Ribeau on June 10, however, the deans issued a letter the next day thanking him for his transparency and pledging their help to meet Howard’s challenges.

On Saturday, Ribeau and two trustees spoke via speakerphone as others gathered in a conference room in the Mordecai Johnson Administration Building. (Another history alert: Johnson, Howard’s first African American president, was a towering figure in the university’s development, serving from 1926 to 1960.)

In the room were Provost Wayne A.I. Frederick, General Counsel Kurt L. Schmoke, spokeswoman Kerry-Ann Hamilton and Tarola. The trustees on the phone were Robert L. Lumpkins, chairman of the finance committee on the Board of Trustees, and Elizabeth G. Early, chairwoman of the academic excellence committee, whose term on the board ended Monday.

It is worth noting that board chairman Addison Barry Rand and vice chairwoman Renee Higginbotham-Brooks have declined multiple interview requests. A letter from Higginbotham-Brooks, disclosed on June 7, contended that Howard is “in genuine trouble” because of fiscal and management issues. Rand countered that the university remains “academically, financially and operationally strong.”

Here are some other points that emerged from Saturday’s interview:

●Student enrollment, which fell 5 percent last fall, to 10,002, is projected to hold at about that level in the coming academic year. “The goal is to have a class of 10,000,” Frederick said. “That’s what we’re aiming at. I can’t predict with 100 percent certainty that we’ll get there.” He added that key metrics for enrollment, such as deposit payments, were encouraging: “By all benchmarks, based on year over year data, we are ahead of where we were last year.”

These numbers are critical for the university as it seeks to increase tuition revenue.

Critics say that the university has raised tuition too much in recent times, citing an undergraduate increase of more than 40 percent over a four-year span. The deans, in their June 6 letter, called the increases “burdensome.”

Tuition and fees were frozen for the coming year at about $22,700 for undergraduates. But Ribeau’s team says that net tuition revenue has grown.

Here is the trend line for net revenue of tuition and fees, after subtracting institutional grants, according to the university: $122 million in fiscal 2010, $143 million in fiscal 2011, $147 million in fiscal 2012 and $159 million in fiscal 2013.

●Fundraising: Ribeau’s team said that $61 million in private donations has been raised for Howard since 2009. Higginbotham-Brooks, in her letter, said the university lacks “an infrastructure for fundraising” and lacks “access to the larger philanthropic community.”

Ribeau said the university is preparing a major philanthropic campaign — its first since 2007 — to coincide with its upcoming sesquicentennial. “We’re putting in place the pieces for that,” he said. He and his aides declined to say what the campaign’s fundraising target would be.

The university’s endowment stood at $525 million at the end of May, officials said, recovering from the drop that it suffered, along with many other colleges nationwide, after the 2008 financial crisis. In 2009, according to a survey by the National Association of College and University Business Officers, Howard’s endowment stood at $365 million.

●The Howard University Hospital, which serves a high number of poor and uninsured patients from the District, is getting close scrutiny. Officials said they are exploring a wide range options for the hospital’s future at the direction of the board and with help from consultants. They stressed that doesn’t necessarily mean it will be sold. Revenue shortfalls connected with the hospital have been a problem recently.

Ribeau indicated that he is in discussions with the board about his contract with the university and that he is “energized” about the work ahead.

“I’m in the process now of talking with the university about the future and where we’d like to go and how much we’d like to get done in what period of time,” Ribeau said. “We haven’t resolved those discussions, but we’re having those discussions now.” He added: “We’re talking about how I’d like to continue to work on behalf of Howard in the future.”

Lumpkins said: “The president has been in conversation with the board about next steps, and that’s being discussed with him and the chairman and the human resource committee of the board.”

Ribeau, 65, came to Howard in 2008 after serving 13 years as head of Bowling Green State University in Ohio.

His goal for Howard, he said, is not only to be the top historically black college or university but also “one of the leading urban research universities in the entire country,” whose graduates “become real social change agents” in the United States and the world.

“We’re on course,” he said. “There’s been some external kind of factors, like a recession and bumps in that road, but we’re on that course.”