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Howard University fires six employees after investigation into misappropriated funding

Six employees of Howard University were fired after school officials discovered that financial aid money had been misappropriated, school leaders confirmed. (Video: WUSA9)

Six employees of Howard University were fired for “gross misconduct and neglect of duties” after school officials discovered that financial aid money had been misappropriated, school leaders confirmed Wednesday.

A university investigation discovered that for nine years — from 2007 to 2016 — some employees who received tuition benefits to cover the cost of taking classes were also receiving university grants. That double dipping exceeded the actual cost of attendance, signaling that the workers appeared to be embezzling.

News of misappropriated university funds and the subsequent firings mark the latest blow to Howard’s reputation. The school’s president, Wayne A.I. Frederick, came under fire earlier this month when he criticized a student for her tone when she expressed concern about whether she would get housing. And six women have accused the school — an iconic historically black university — of mishandling sexual assault allegations.

Frederick released a statement Wednesday about the financial aid misdeeds and promised that measures had been instituted to prevent a recurrence of the misappropriation.

“While this has been a very difficult and disappointing situation, I know our campus community deserves better and I am committed to ensuring that each of our campus offices operate with integrity and are the best that higher education has to offer,” Frederick said in his statement.

University officials did not immediately reveal how much money was involved in the matter.

“We don’t have a final amount but we are working with our outside experts to ensure every dollar is accounted for and the university will exercise all of our options to recoup the funds,” Howard spokeswoman Alonda Thomas said in an email.

Frederick’s statement came not long after an anonymous item was posted to online blogging platform Medium this week that alleged an “office-wide scandal” involving officials in the university’s financial aid department. Frederick’s statement did not directly mention the Medium post, which was later no longer available online.

In the statement, Frederick said he learned in December 2016 that financial aid money might have been misappropriated, a revelation that prompted an internal investigation. An outside auditor was brought in to dig into the concerns, and Frederick said he received the results of the audit in May 2017.

The university said the misappropriated grant money was not from the federal government, nor was it money that donors had designated for grants. Frederick said in the statement he reported the findings to the Education Department. That agency’s inspector general would neither confirm nor deny whether officials are investigating.

Howard’s investigation into the actions of the employees wrapped up in September 2017.

“We will refer this matter for criminal prosecution, as appropriate,” the statement said.

A D.C. police spokeswoman said that the agency had not been contacted about the allegations, nor had it been asked to investigate.

After a worried Howard student emailed her president about housing, he replied about her ‘tone’

The statement from Howard did not name the fired employees.

Calling the financial integrity of Howard’s operations “paramount,” Frederick said in the statement that changes and preventive measures were taken after the investigation. He said the school has adopted additional layers of review and approval for its grants and scholarships, and is conducting an annual audit of the funds.

“Management is in the process of hiring for all remaining open positions in the Financial Aid Office and enhanced training on policies and procedures will be provided both to new hires and continuing employees,” the statement from the Howard president said.

Are finances at Howard University better or worse under the current president?

Since taking office in 2014, Frederick has been trying to engineer a financial turnaround at a school plagued by internal challenges and external pressures. The university has reduced its expenses to offset lower revenue from its teaching hospital and higher expenditures in student financial aid. That strategy has helped improve operating revenue, the difference between income and expenses, even as the university contended with lower federal appropriations.

Frederick has instituted financial policies that have created tension on campus. With roughly $22 million in uncollected tuition as of 2017, the university started requiring that students have a zero balance to register for classes or pay one-third of their outstanding bill and be enrolled in a payment plan. The action hit some low-income students especially hard, but school officials described it as a necessary step toward financial stability.

Students protest inside administration building at Howard University

Jade Agudosi, president of the Howard University Student Association, said the revelations about the financial aid office have left students with questions about what happened to funding. Agudosi called for more transparency from Howard.

“That’s something that we’ve been asking for for years,” Agudosi said. “This isn’t something outlandish or wild that we’re asking for. We’re asking for them to be transparent about what they’re doing with our money.”

The funding scandal comes the same month as frustrations with university housing boiled over. As those issues were brewing earlier this month, a student posted to Twitter an email exchange she had with Frederick. The student was worried about her housing, but when Frederick responded, he told the 19-year-old her “tone and tenor” were inappropriate.

The tweet garnered attention on social media, and it was used as a springboard to launch into online complaints about housing, financial aid and the treatment of students.