The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Howard U faculty leaders vote no confidence in university president. But some say vote was flawed.

Howard President Wayne A.I. Frederick. (Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post)

Faculty leaders at Howard University have no confidence in the school’s top administrators, according to the chairman of the faculty senate.

Citing concerns about financial problems, lack of transparency and failures of leadership, the faculty council, a leadership group of the full faculty senate, voted no confidence in Howard President Wayne A.I. Frederick and Provost Anthony Wutoh on Friday, according to the chairman of the faculty senate, Taft Broome.

“These votes follow the 1994 vote of No Confidence in then-President Franklyn Jenifer rendered by the Steering Committee of the Council of the Howard University Faculty Senate. Dr. Jenifer left Howard University a few weeks later,” Broome wrote in a letter to the faculty senate.

But some top faculty leaders said that the vote took them by surprise and that it was procedurally invalid, and they questioned whether it was an accurate representation of the views of professors at the historically black university in the nation’s capital. The vice chair and secretary of the faculty senate wrote a letter to Broome questioning the way the vote was taken, and asking him to immediately hold a council meeting to address procedural issues raised by several members of the faculty senate council. 

“Whenever called, the magnitude of a Vote of No Confidence demands that faculty (and indeed all Officers) be informed beforehand that such a vote was imminent,”  Veronica Clarke-Tasker, the vice chair, and Moses Garuba, the secretary of the faculty senate wrote to Broome. “A planned vote such as this must meet this procedural hurdle in order to be credible. The vote was planned, without consultation with the Vice Chair, Secretary, or the Council of the Faculty Senate.  Furthermore, at the start of the meeting, when the Chair called out for additional agenda items, there was no mention of a possible Vote of No Confidence.”

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Howard, a federally chartered, private university that embodies for many the promise and potential of the country’s black elite, has struggled with financial problems for years. Its hospital, long a symbol of its commitment to serve, has come under criticism for lapses, including millions of dollars in malpractice or wrongful-death settlements. The hospital’s chief executive, James Diegel, said in a letter to the editor that the hospital is in the midst of a successful turnaround.

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Stacey Mobley, the chairman of the Board of Trustees, responded with a letter to the faculty senate Tuesday, contesting many of the claims made in support of the vote.

“A vote of no confidence is deeply troubling, wholly unjustified and counterproductive to Howard’s goals,” he wrote. “In fact, it contradicts the very positive assessment this Board has of the President’s performance to date, his track record of success and the integrity and good judgment he exhibits. The current Administration is leading with honesty, transparency and accountability; these are core values we should all embrace in our leadership.

“The assertions in the letter are not accurate representations and paint a dim picture of Howard’s current reality. Although we still have many challenges in front of us, many of President Frederick’s accomplishments are already steadily moving the University forward.”

The council is the governing body of the faculty senate.

“Considering all the matters at the university, we had asked the president to give us some documents so we could understand his position better,” Broome said Tuesday evening. “He gave us documents. They weren’t enough.”

So they called a meeting, and Frederick spoke for an hour, Broome said. “A motion was put on the floor of no confidence,” he said. “It passed overwhelmingly.”

He said he called Frederick that evening to tell him about the results, and described the president’s response as “terse.”

On Monday, Broome sent an email to the faculty senate.

That’s how Greg Carr, chairman of the department of Afro-American Studies, said he learned of this. “There’s a real cloud over the process,” he said. “It’s not at all clear that the letter came as the result of a proper vote.”

“I’m a member of the faculty senate council, and I wasn’t present.” He said the president and others left partway through the meeting because of an event for accepted students.

“Many of us were shocked to see that there had been a call for a vote of no confidence,” he said. “Not only had there been a call but there had been a vote taken.”

That was not on the agenda for the meeting, Carr said, and although there may have been a quorum of members at the beginning of the meeting, many of them had left before the crucial vote took place. “I’m certainly not satisfied that procedure was followed correctly,” he said.

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Monique Yvette McClung, president of the Howard University Staff Organization, wrote a letter Friday to Frederick assuring him that she and the board of the organization support his presidency.

Through a spokeswoman, Frederick sent a statement Wednesday: “Howard’s mission requires that we remain focused on advancing the institution forward.  I will continue to work diligently with faculty  to make progress on the challenges we face.  These challenges aren’t dissimilar to the challenges that all of higher education is facing.”  

Frederick’s supporters point to recent initiatives, such as its “Howard West” partnership with Google, in which computer science students will learn from both Howard faculty and tech employees who mentor them.

Mobley said that Frederick was leveraging real estate and other assets to create new revenue streams, modernizing buildings to help attract and retain talented people, the hospital is no longer operating at a loss, and fundraising has surged during Frederick’s tenure.

Kimberly Jones, a senior studying chemical engineering at Howard, said Frederick inherited a university with problems, and it was unrealistic to expect rapid change.

“I just feel like everybody’s expecting too much of him at once,” she said. “Instead of letting him progress and get familiar more with his job.”

Natalie Coleman, a chemical engineering major from Maryland, said, “I think he does care. Like Kimberly said, it’s just not enough time.”

Frederick has faced student protests over financial aid, red tape and maintenance problems on campus and, more recently, anger about a meeting he held with Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

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Malik Dennis, a junior from California studying economics, said the sentiment on campus is that “the university is not going in the right direction. A lot of people are not satisfied and happy with Frederick.” 

Moody’s Investors Service has downgraded the school’s bond rating in recent years but said last summer that Howard’s efforts to turn around its finances, including a $22 million deal to convert a residence hall into luxury rentals, were on the right track. Still, the credit rating agency said the school faced serious challenges even with its steady stream of federal funding, location and real estate value, and reputation.

“These strengths are offset by thin operating performance and revenue pressures from a patient care enterprise with high Medicaid exposure and price sensitive student market,” the analysis says. “The university also has thin working capital and significant deferred maintenance. Additionally, the university has significant fixed costs including debt service, pension and health-care benefits.”

Broome’s letter to the faculty details concerns, including “unfulfilled promises of a new revenue stream from an online learning program, a new faculty development program, and a new faculty ombudsman; deceptive transparency, ineffective fund raising, and the lack of a plan for an expansive path forward for Howard University; a loss of trust from faculty … no discussion of a reported $700M deferred maintenance burden …”

Broome said Wednesday that the vote was valid. The meeting was requested by Frederick, he said. “The faculty chair does not know what motions will be made in a meeting.”

Asked whether the vote accurately reflects the views of the faculty, he said, “I’m completely confident it does.”

Frederick faced tough questions from the faculty, Carr said, “unvarnished. A quite frank conversation that has to continue for us to advance as a collective.

“Personally, from the time I met and began interacting with President Frederick, there’s no doubt he loves the institution and is committed to the institution. There’s also no doubt it’s one of the most difficult jobs in higher education.”