His appointment comes at a tumultuous time for the historically black university, which in the past year has faced allegations of fiscal mismanagement, two credit downgrades amid concerns about the financial health of a university-owned hospital, and a drop in a major national ranking of higher-education institutions.
The board voted to appoint Frederick on Monday evening, accepting the unanimous recommendation of a search committee chaired by longtime D.C. lawyer and power broker Vernon E. Jordan Jr.
“I’m absolutely confident that of the choices we had before us, we selected the best person,” Jordan said, adding that Frederick stood out because of his energy, insight and personal experience at Howard, where he has been a student, faculty member and administrator. “It is clear that he loves the institution. He’s proud of what Howard did for him, and he would like to lead a Howard that will do for others.”
Frederick, a native of Trinidad, was a baby when he was diagnosed with sickle-cell anemia, a hereditary blood disorder that can cause serious health complications. He has said that the combination of spending time in hospitals as a child and his mother’s work as a nurse spurred his dreams of becoming a doctor.
Frederick arrived at Howard in 1988, when he was 16 years old, and by age 22 he had earned a bachelor’s degree in zoology and a medical degree. He left campus for several years to complete postgraduate training in Texas and then do a stint at a teaching hospital in Connecticut. He returned to Howard as a faculty member in 2006.
Rising through the ranks, he became director of the university’s hospital cancer center in 2011 — the same year he earned his third Howard degree, a master’s in business administration. He also served as provost and chief academic officer under former President Sidney A. Ribeau, who resigned abruptly in the fall amid allegations of fiscal mismanagement. Ribeau denied those claims, but his departure left instability and a leadership vacuum that Frederick was called on to fill on an interim basis.
Frederick — whose experience with Howard’s hospital puts him in a position to work on the university’s troubles in that area — will lead one of the nation’s premier historically black schools, which serves more than 10,000 students on its Northwest Washington campus. Howard is known as a top producer of doctorates for African American students and has schools of law, business, dentistry and medicine, among other disciplines. The school plans to celebrate its 150th anniversary in 2017.
In an interview Tuesday, Frederick said his appointment as president is a “humbling honor, one that I think comes with a sacred obligation to make sure that the university continues to thrive and plays a role in changing the world around it.”
Frederick, 43, lives with his wife and two children in Montgomery County.
One of his most pressing priorities is to restructure the university’s financially strapped teaching hospital, a key health-care provider for low-income Washingtonians that reported a $37 million operating loss in the most recent fiscal year.
Frederick said he is working on a long-term plan for the hospital, but he declined to offer details or a timeline for reaching a solution. In a television interview last month, he said systemic issues — such as Medicaid and Medicare reimbursements that are too low to cover the costs of providing care — mean that the hospital “can’t survive as an independently owned hospital.”
He also wants to renovate the school’s aging buildings, offer more scholarships to students and address rising tuition and fees, which are slated to top $24,000 for the 2014-2015 school year. All of that will require beefed-up fundraising, including what Frederick said would be a major push for donations in connection with celebrations of Howard’s sesquicentennial.
Frederick said he will push to bring in new revenue, including through the university’s real estate assets and intellectual property rights. The university should explore, for example, turning Meridian Hill Hall, a student residence on 16th Street, into condominiums, he said.
As interim president, Frederick acknowledged the pressure to control costs, saying in the fall that he understood the need to take “dead aim at any excesses we may have in the system.”
He said Tuesday that outside of the hospital, where university officials already have begun talks with unions about restructuring, he doesn’t expect that layoffs will be necessary to balance the budget. “The university as a whole right now has been doing very well,” he said.
In April 2013, Howard trustee Renee Higginbotham-Brooks warned that the school was on such precarious financial footing that it was in danger of folding within three years. A few months later, near the end of Ribeau’s tenure, Moody’s Investors Service downgraded Howard’s credit rating because of what analysts said was weak fundraising, a university hospital with a “remarkably weak profile,” student-enrollment fluctuations and questions about management’s ability to follow through on cost-cutting plans.
Moody’s downgraded Howard’s credit rating a second time in July, under Frederick’s interim leadership, because of the hospital’s operating losses.
But other financial pressures at Howard appear to have eased. Enrollment, which fell 5 percent in 2012, ticked upward in 2013, and its endowment has grown to nearly $600 million, its highest ever.
Higginbotham-Brooks, the trustee who sounded the financial alarm last year, called Frederick an “outstanding choice” for president. “I look forward to the future of this great institution.”
Still, many faculty and students remain uneasy about the way ahead, said physics professor Gregory Jenkins, who said he was disappointed that the university community didn’t have a chance to hear each finalist present a vision for addressing Howard’s academic and fiscal problems.
“Given the challenges that we’re facing, it would have been, I felt, the right thing," Jenkins said.
Board of Trustees Chairman Stacey J. Mobley said that the search committee took pains to gather input from faculty, students and alumni across the country. But it would be unrealistic and unusual, he said, to expect applicants who hold high-level positions elsewhere to publicly disclose their interest in a new job. Howard officials would not say how many finalists there were for the presidency, nor would they disclose finalists’ names.
Mobley said he has been impressed during the past nine months by Frederick’s willingness to listen to students and faculty, and he said he is excited about what Howard will become under Frederick’s leadership.
“We’re turning the corner,” Mobley said. “I think we have a great leader, and I’m looking forward to working with the president to move the university forward.”
That sentiment was echoed by Stacy Polanco, 23, a Howard biology student from Tampa who serves on the College of Arts and Sciences Student Council. Polanco said she took a celebratory lap down a corridor in Ernest Just Hall when she heard about Frederick’s appointment.
“He really loves Howard,” Polanco said. “He really improved a lot of things over the fall and spring semester.”
Senior Shanice Mitchell, 21, a political science major from Philadelphia, had a more measured view: “I think he’s moving in the right direction, but only time will tell.”