It was a rare moment of tranquility for Howard University on May 12, when “Black Panther” star Chadwick Boseman returned to his alma mater to tell graduating seniors to “find purpose in their lives and persevere.” The sun was shining for commencement, and the mood was joyful.
That was a stark contrast to events roiling the country’s most prestigious historically black university — long the nation’s center of black scholarship.
As the board of trustees meets this week, there are unanswered questions about the management and oversight of the school — and whether the recent tumult will affect the administration and tenure of President Wayne A.I. Frederick. The school has divided into pro-Frederick and anti-Frederick camps, and the student body and faculty have expressed no confidence in him.
Will the board continue to support him? Should it?
Problems with the budget, financial aid, enrollment, student housing, security, building maintenance and transparency are hardly new.
In 2013, Howard trustee Renee Higginbotham-Brooks wrote an extraordinary letter detailing financial and leadership problems, and saying, “Howard will not be here in three years if we don’t make some crucial decisions now.” Though the board chair said Higginbotham-Brooks was exaggerating and the school was on solid ground, it wasn’t long after, on Oct. 1 of that year, that President Sidney Ribeau abruptly resigned and Frederick effectively took over.
Howard did, of course, survive — as it has weathered tough times before — but there is a sense among some in the Howard community that the school remains unacceptably troubled with Frederick at the helm.
To be sure, historically black colleges and universities across the country are dealing with funding issues even as enrollment is rising, and the management of HBCUs is sometimes judged more harshly than predominantly white universities. Yet concerns about Howard persist — in large part because of its status as “the Mecca” for black students.
Department budget cuts have continued under Frederick (and some deans were recently furious when he ordered a new round). Administrative turnover is frequent (there have, for example, been at least four directors or interim directors of advancement under Frederick and several campus police chiefs). Building maintenance problems have escalated (fixes will cost many millions of dollars), and students have said their concerns about a “rape culture” on campus long went ignored. Student discontent peaked in March, with students occupying the Howard administration building.
Frederick himself has had a remarkable degree of success in his life. He enrolled at Howard University when he was 16. He earned a bachelor’s degree and a medical degree by the time he was 22. In 2006, he joined the faculty at Howard, and in 2011, he became director of the university’s hospital cancer center.
He became provost of Howard in 2012, interim president in 2013 and the 17th president of the school a year later, at age 43 (the average age of a U.S. university president is almost 62). In 2016, he earned more than $1 million in compensation, and a year later, the Howard Board of Trustees thought so much of him they extended his contract through 2024.
Board members credit him with a rise in applications to Howard (amid an application surge across the world of historic black colleges and universities), a 20 percent increase in the average GPA entering class and average SAT scores up by 200 points. They also credit him with attempting to try to reverse years of financial decline that were seen in several years of credit-ranking downgrades from investment services.
In 2015, Standard & Poor’s Financial Services dropped Howard’s bond rating to the lowest it could be as investment grade and said its outlook was negative. Moody’s Investors Services, too, in the same year lowered the school’s bond rating and said its outlook was negative, though its analysts said in 2016 it looked favorably on two deals Howard had struck to find new revenue streams.
Still, the deals — one was to turn a residence hall into luxury rentals and the other a plan to auction off its television airwaves — do not equal a five-year strategic plan, which the school does not have. On Oct. 11 last year, Frederick sent a letter to Howard University community members saying the school had “embarked on the foundational stages of developing a new strategic plan” in 2016 and that everyone’s input was welcome. Work on it continues.
Meanwhile, Howard — a private university that is federally supported — is dealing with other problems.
The school has recently been hit by two embezzlement scandals.
In 2017, a former employee-benefit-plan manager was sentenced to a year and a day in prison for embezzling more than $420,000 from pension accounts. Then, on April 9 this year, Howard officials announced that six former employees had misappropriated $369,000 in financial aid from 2011 to 2016. School officials had known about the scandal for some time, but it was the first time the public learned of its scope.
That was among the reasons that in late March, students furious about Frederick’s leadership occupied Howard’s administration building for days, issuing a list of eight demands that included adequate housing, steps to end the “rape culture” on campus, disarming campus police — and the president’s resignation.
Students had long complained that Howard officials did not adequately address sexual assault allegations by women. Late last year, a sixth woman joined a federal lawsuit accusing the university of failing to properly address allegations of sexual assault said to have been committed between 2014 and 2016 by male Howard students and employees.
Howard said it does not comment on Title IX cases or pending litigation but said it “takes very seriously all allegations of sexual assault, sexual harassment, domestic violence and gender-based discrimination.” Title IX is the federal law that prohibits sex discrimination in schools that receive federal funding.
(In 2011, five Howard students sued the school, alleging it failed to appropriately respond to reports that a school employee had committed sexual assault and harassment. The employee was terminated and wound up in jail.)
One of the episodes that fueled the occupation of the administration building was a revealing incident that started when a student emailed Frederick saying she was concerned about a lack of student housing. She said she might have to transfer or become homeless and wrote, “So I beg of you, please just let us know what we are supposed to do?” according to an image of the email. Frederick answered this way: “Your tone and tenor is inappropriate. The appropriate offices to handle this matter are copied and will respond.”
(Who answers a desperate student’s email that way?)
In any case, the students ended the occupation, winning some promises of changes. They included a recommendation to freeze undergraduate tuition and a commitment to create task forces to analyze services the university provides for sexual assault victims and mental health issues.
But Frederick kept his job.
Then in April, faculty members voted no-confidence in him — as well as in his provost and chief operating officer. (They had also voted no-confidence in 2017. That process was questioned on procedural grounds, but the vote was never overturned.)
Howard is accredited by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, and the school must comply with seven core standards. In April, the commission issued a one-page document saying its staff had requested from Howard a report addressing “recent developments at the institution which may have implications for current and future compliance with Standard II (Ethics and Integrity), Standard IV (Support of the Student Experience), and Standard VII (Governance, Leadership and Administration).”
Alonda Thomas, Howard’s director of public relations, said in an email that the commission requests updates from schools in several different situations, including “if an institution conducts its affairs in ways which generate public concern or raise questions about the institution’s ability to meet the requirements of affiliation, accreditation standards, or commission policies.” In this case, she said, Middle States sought a report from Howard “after April media reports of the financial aid misappropriation by former Howard employees.”
Howard officials did not provide a copy of what they sent to Middle States, which underscores transparency issues about which students and faculty have long complained.
For example, Thomas said the following when asked whether the university had recently hired a public relations consultant: “Howard University’s vendor agreements generally include confidentiality clauses that preclude public disclosure of terms and conditions. Accordingly, it is Howard’s policy not to disclose its partners, terms and/or conditions of vendor agreements.”
Unlike many other schools, including other HBCUs, Howard does not post on its website what is known as an annual Common Data Set, which includes information about admissions, enrollment, housing, student demographics and other subjects.
A Feb. 5 HBCU.money report on the biggest HBCU endowments has Howard at the No. 1 position, but there is no dollar amount, and the list notes that Howard did not report it, as did the other nine schools on the list. A footnote says: “Howard University did not report their endowment, but has been ranked number one since our list began. As such, we acknowledge the high probability that they remain as such.”
Meanwhile, there have been long-standing facilities issues at the school, which escalated into a crisis this past winter, causing the 2018 winter semester to start late because buildings could not be heated. A university explanation posted to the website said winter weather had caused problems:
“You may observe plumes of steam that originate from manholes that are along sidewalks, due to ruptured piping in the steam tunnel. Repairs are scheduled to start over the spring break period. Any other downtime prior, would cause significant disruption to campus operations. . . . To ensure the campus is operational, we conducted tactical responses to the crisis, but it is critical that we pivot to a long term, strategic response that is driven by the University’s master plan.”
Some on campus wondered why there wasn’t already a strategic response to facilities issues that had troubled the school for years. Students and staff have complained about noxious fumes, mold and other problems.
One administrator knowledgeable about the facilities crisis (but who did not want to be identified because the information is not supposed to be made public) said that while the scope of necessary fixes has yet to be determined, observational data suggests damages could amount to $250 million. Asked about that figure, Thomas said, “We’re still trying to track down input.”
Fundraising — which is a key, if not the, central role of university presidents today — has been difficult. In a March 2017 letter, Frederick wrote to the student newspaper the Hilltop: “We are in the midst of a 300 percent increase in our alumni giving participation rate.”
However, a chart Frederick used in his 2017 State of the University report shows a much smaller increase in the alumni giving rate over Frederick’s tenure as president — or even from well before he took over leadership of the school:
According to Howard University’s federal tax return running from July 1, 2015, through June 20, 2016, the school earned a total of $3,350 for all of its big fundraising events, including its annual Charter Day Dinner and Commencement Ball. That wasn’t much, but it was an improvement from the year before. That’s when, tax returns show, Howard’s fundraising events sustained a $240,000 loss.
Frederick’s 2017 State of the University address includes a chart that shows that the school has done a better job with its traditional Charter Day Dinner fundraising under his presidency:
Still, a school spokesman said Howard had moved away from such large-scale fundraising efforts because they are among the least efficient, and was focused on “diversifying our sources of contributed revenue.”
These are total contributions to the university from audited financial statements, as provided by the university (though they do not take into account fundraising expenditures):
Fiscal year 2017: $15.7 million
Fiscal year 2016: $10.6 million
Fiscal year 2015: $12.4 million
Fiscal year 2014: $12.3 million
Fiscal year 2013: $13.7 million
Fiscal year 2012. $10.1 million
Yet in some of those years, other historically black colleges and universities raised more.
As of now, Frederick’s contract keeps him as Howard’s president until June 2024.
(Update: An earlier version reported that Howard’s deferred maintenance could amount to $250 million, according to a source, with the university declining to give a number. A university representative has since said deferred maintenance campus-wide is greater than $250 million.)