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October 4, 2013

What's The Fuss At Howard University?

ribeau.jpg

By John S. Rosenberg

Academic politics can be vicious and hence an often entertaining spectator sport. Still, it is not altogether clear why Howard University president Sidney Ribeau's recent announcement that he will resign the end of this year -- unexpected and even shocking though it was -- has attracted so much press attention, and not just in the usual higher education sources.

It is true, as the Chronicle of Higher Education reports, that "Mr. Ribeau's retirement comes on the heels of a troubled year for Howard, in which deans and trustees publicly blasted leaders of the historically black university for mismanagement, falling enrollment, and a hospital in financial straits," and earlier this year Renee Higginbotham-Brooks, vice chair of Howard's Board of Trustees, called for a vote of no confidence against Ribeau. Last year, according to an article in Diverse Issues In Higher Education, Ribeau "faced widespread criticism when the Faculty Senate protested more than $1.1 million in bonuses that were paid to senior-level officials at the university at the same time that Ribeau had endorsed  a tuition hike." Ribeau himself earned $759,340 in total compensation, according to a report in the Washington Post.

Moreover, according to a source quoted in Diverse Issues in Higher Education, "the Board of Trustees was incensed to learn that [Board Chairman] Addison Barry Rand -- who coincidently married Ribeau's sister more than three decades ago -- led the charge to push through [Ribeau's recent contract extension to 2015] without first clearing the move with the board," and there were allegations "that a former provost had hired several administrators from Atlanta -- who were known across campus as the "Atlanta Gang." They earned lucrative salaries but did very little work and were eventually terminated."

The more one reads of these controversies, however, the more they sound pretty much like life as usual in higher education these days. Overpaid administrators? Complaints both by and about deans and trustees? Nepotism? Overreaching or underperforming college presidents? So what else is new? "With 5,000 staff members for 10,000 students," columnist Natalie Hopkinson writes in the Washington Post today [Oct. 4], "even loyal alumni are questioning whether the university has strayed from its racial justice mission and become a jobs program."

I am not sure that Howard's dental school, business school, and STEM departments would readily agree that they all have a "racial justice mission," but in fact most defenses of racial-based polices -- of which aid to Howard is surely one -- usually identify racial justice with jobs for blacks.

One thing that is not new but that is definitely different about Howard, though it was ignored or minimized in much of the coverage of the current controversy, is the degree of its dependence on federal largesse, which has been guaranteed by statute since 1928. Even during the recent recession the Department of Education continued giving Howard about $234 million dollars a year. As the Department of Education's FY 2012 Budget Request stated:

The Administration requests $235 million for Howard University in fiscal year 2012, the same as the fiscal year 2011 CR level. Federal funds, which provide approximately 46 percent of Howard University's operating costs in fiscal year 2011, are needed for the University to maintain its current level of educational services and for the Hospital to continue offering healthcare services.

Howard University, ostensibly a private university, receives nearly half of its operating budget from the federal government. By contrast, the University of Virginia, ostensibly a public university (although there is some controversy about that), receives only 5.8% of its operating budget from the Commonwealth of Virginia.

Moody's recently downgraded Howard's credit rating, indicating that it "considers $290 million in revenue bonds issued for the private university in Northwest Washington to be a moderate credit risk to investors." Aside from the question of how private such a government-dependent institution is, since the federal government seems to have so much trouble operating itself these days does it really make sense to continue shoveling federal funds to Howard, at least without exercising more oversight and control over its finances?

Finally, there is the always troubling matter of "diversity." This administration is on record insisting that racial diversity is an absolutely essential requirement of a good education, and the Department of Justice's brief in the Fisher case asserts that "the effort to promote diversity is a paramount government objective." Really? How, then, having demanded "diversity" everywhere, can it justify continuing to give nearly a quarter of a billion dollars a year to an institution that "has a student body that is one percent white"?

(Photo: Sidney Ribeau. Credit: Howard.)



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