Wayne A.I. Frederick was 16 when he arrived at Howard University from Trinidad in 1988. Bespectacled and frail from a life-and-death struggle with sickle cell anemia, the freshman stood 5 foot 6 and weighed only 88 pounds.
He was short on funds and had no relatives in the District to lean on.
And yet, by age 22, he’d not only earned a bachelor’s degree in zoology but also completed medical school. He went on to become associate dean of the medical college. In 2011, he earned a master’s degree in business. Last October, at age 42, the “triple alum” was appointed interim president of his alma mater.
It is a résumé and life journey that seems tailor-made for the challenges he faces.
The prognosis for Howard University is dire, to hear some tell it. A ranking member of the board of trustees warned a year ago that without more intensive care — especially more attention to the flow of money, the school’s life blood — Howard would be dead within three years.
Enter Frederick — a cancer surgeon with an MBA.
Frederick balks at being cast in a doctor-patient relationship with Howard. Nevertheless, during a recent interview, there was no doubt that a physician was on call.
“It’s important for me to be a calm voice in the room, bring my mind to rest in order to make the best decisions,” Frederick said, referring to the challenges posed by the fiscal crisis and political turmoil that had consumed his predecessor, Sidney Ribeau. “When things are going haywire in the operating room, I don’t get to lose my cool, or else I could lose my patient.”
Frederick, who was provost for academic affairs, was prepared to step up when Ribeau stepped down. He’d spent years studying “the anatomy of the university,” as he put it, the way he’d study the human body.
“You have to look at how one part affects the other,” he said.
While serving as associate dean of the medical college in 2009, Frederick enrolled in Howard’s MBA program. Being a “consumer” of university services as a student and overhearing classmates speak about their experiences was akin to taking a patient’s pulse and listening to the heartbeat.
“One of the first things we had to do was become more operationally efficient,” Frederick said. “So the long lines and long waits for students to get help in the administration building don’t exist anymore. That has taken away some of the students’ frustrations.”
Probably did wonders for their blood pressure, too.
From a window in the president’s office, Frederick can see the remaining bleachers on “the Yard,” the green acreage at the center of the campus where commencement ceremonies were held earlier this month. More than 2,500 students had graduated — including 105 who received PhDs, the largest doctoral class in Howard’s history.
“I’m obsessed with the educational journey that the students and their families make to get here and where they go after they leave,” Frederick said. He noted the decisive role of Howard lawyers in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation case 60 years ago. “Howard students don’t just get a degree. We expect them to use that degree to provide a service to the world and bring that degree to life.”
Just as his mother expected of him.
“What I brought on my journey to Howard was a life of love and support from a mother who had a dream,” he said. “She wanted to become a physician, but at that time her dad didn’t feel that women should become physicians. So she became a nurse. I believe my sickle cell intersected with her dream and made me want to become a physician.”
Frederick was the commencement speaker for the medical school graduation, a kind of 20th-year reunion for him. His mother, Frances Tyson, who is marking her 50th year as a nurse, had flown in from Trinidad for the occasion.
To help Howard students realize their dreams, Frederick believes, Howard needs a more rigorous curriculum and stronger career counseling.
“We’re bringing in professional academic advisers who can monitor a student’s transcripts for strengths and deficits related to what they are trying to accomplish,” he said.
And just because someone has a doctorate in a subject doesn’t mean he or she can teach the subject, he added. So Howard is hiring more faculty members who understand the “technical aspects of teaching,” he said, especially to a new generation of students.
“We have to meet the demands of an increasingly competitive workforce,” Frederick said. “Our students will be seeking jobs and careers where African Americans are underrepresented, where there will be fewer people to advocate on their behalf. So they need a very strong academic environment, the kind of preparation that Charles Drew meant when he said excellence of performance will transcend all boundaries created by man.”
That’s a tall order — especially for a historically black university trying to improve its credit rating on Wall Street and restore its good name, a school that some have all but declared brain-dead.
Then again, Frederick is a doctor. Perhaps more important, he knows what it’s like to be deathly ill, then not only survive but thrive.
“When you’re sick and you’re told that you won’t live to see your eighth birthday, then told you won’t make it to 16, you can get depressed — or you can get motivated,” he said.
No doubt about his response.
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.