The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A poet thinks he was laid off after 40 years at Howard U., but he isn’t sure.

E. Ethelbert Miller on a bench near the Dupont Circle Metro station, where one of his poems is carved into the pavement.  (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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E. Ethelbert Miller, a noted poet and longtime director of the Afro-American Studies Resource Center at Howard University, believes he was laid off last week in a round of staff cuts after working for his alma mater for four decades. He cites solid evidence: He was locked out of his university computer and e-mail account. A larger-than-usual paycheck from his employer was deposited Friday in his bank account. A local television news station reported that day that he had been fired along with more than 80 others.

But Miller said he still isn’t quite sure what’s going on. As of Tuesday afternoon, he said, no one in the university administration had directly informed him of his termination or told him what his severance package will be.

At age 64, this graduate from the Howard class of 1972 said he is owed some answers. He said it is mind-boggling that he would be uninformed about basic personnel issues roughly five days after University President Wayne A.I. Frederick announced to the campus community that financial concerns had led to the elimination of 84 staff positions.

[Howard University cuts 84 staff positions]

Howard officials have not elaborated on the financial issues that forced the layoffs. But records show that the university’s operating expenses in the last fiscal year — $848.7 million — exceeded operating revenue by more than $44 million. The university, based in Northwest Washington, had 10,265 students as of last fall. In each of the previous two years, the university has also announced staff cutbacks.

Though he believes he was one of those cut, Miller chuckles that he still has the keys to his office.

“Nobody has even requested the keys back,” Miller said. “What is my severance? What are my benefits? Hello?”

Howard officials declined to comment. “It would be inappropriate to discuss personnel matters regarding current or former employees,” said William Whitman Jr., Howard’s vice president for communications.

Miller’s ties to Howard are deep. Born in 1950 in the Bronx, he entered the historically black university in the nation’s capital in 1968 and majored in Afro-American studies. Two years after graduating, Miller says, he took a position at the university as director of the resource center. The center houses a collection of literary and social science publications on the black experience in America. It supports the curriculum in Afro-American studies, the College of Arts and Sciences and the university as a whole.

Miller has become a literary activist of some stature. He has written several volumes of poetry and two memoirs, edited a magazine called Poet Lore, served on the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities and is chairman of a progressive think tank called the Institute for Policy Studies.

“He’s a really iconic figure,” said Kojo Nnamdi, a talk show host at WAMU radio (88.5 FM), who frequently had Miller as a guest on his show. “He has spent the past four decades on a personal mission of promoting poetry and writing in Washington and around the country. …  He may not be as renowned as a poet as he is as a link among poets. He is how a lot of poets get to know each other.”

Miller’s verse is engraved on the pavement next to a circular bench outside the Dupont Circle Metro Station honoring the caretakers of AIDS victims. The 2005 poem, “We Embrace”, reads: “We fought against the invisible/ We looked to one another for comfort/ We held the hands of friends and lovers/ We did not turn our backs/ We embraced/ We embraced.”

Greg Carr, chairman of the department of Afro-American studies at Howard, lauded Miller in a tweet on Saturday.

Miller said he holds no grudge against Frederick, who was named president last summer in a time of financial challenges at the university and its hospital. “I wish the guy well,” Miller said. “This is a guy who really loves the university. I want him to do well.” But Miller said the university has mishandled his situation because he has given a lot to Howard.

“I’m not going to be modest,” he said. “You want to talk about my contributions to the university? Let’s get started. … Forty years. You do the math: What should I get in terms of severance? … I don’t want to go from being a literary activist to being a literary sharecropper.”

Late Tuesday afternoon, Miller ended a telephone conversation with The Washington Post, saying he had to take a call from Frederick. Reached afterward, Miller declined to comment on what Frederick told him.