“For her,” Dr. Frederick explained, “Howard was an almost mystical place, which had done so much for our country.”
Wayne Frederick was afflicted with sickle cell anemia, which is often accompanied by long-term pain and fatigue and can lead to early death. That, too, shaped his path. He was in a race against time. Graduating one year ahead of his high school class, he enrolled at Howard and received both his undergraduate and medical degrees in six years. He remembers mentors like the legendary Dr. LaSalle D. Leffall, who embraced and encouraged him during his surgical residency.
Wearing a conservative pinstripe suit, white shirt and dark tie, Dr. Frederick was taking an early-morning break in the boardroom next to the president’s office, recently vacated by Sidney A. Ribeau, who retired suddenly amid trustee unhappiness and friction that had gone public.
Dr. Frederick, who was provost until this appointment, wants to ensure that Howard remains true to its mission: preparing African-Americans to be leaders. The Mecca, as students refer to this epicenter of black scholarship, has produced more African-American Ph.D.’s, lawyers, engineers and architects than any other institution. But Dr. Frederick must confront a complex of uncomfortable realities, some brought on by the economy, some by financial mismanagement and board infighting, and some by the nation’s diversifying landscape.
Historically black colleges and universities, known as H.B.C.U.’s, once held a monopoly. Today, they struggle to compete with elite colleges that have stepped up recruiting for the best and brightest black students. Howard admitted almost 60 percent of applicants last year; among current freshmen, the top 25 percent in SAT math and reading scored 1190 and up; 15 years ago the threshold was 1330.
Other uncomfortable realities include new restrictions on the federal loans that many students depend on (89 percent of Howard’s receive some sort of financial aid). Howard’s teaching hospital has also been a drain on resources; once the sole choice for middle-class patients in a segregated society, it is now used mostly by those who cannot afford to pay elsewhere. And the university has been hit with a downgrade of its credit rating by Moody’s Investors Service that makes fund-raising even more difficult.
Howard is not unique in the constellation of private and public H.B.C.U.’s, or even in the overall higher education community. Earlier this year, Moody’s put out a negative outlook on the entire higher education sector.
But as the saying goes, when white America catches a cold, black America catches pneumonia.
HOWARD, which sits on a sprawling 258-acre campus in Northwest Washington, has educated many of the civil rights leaders who fought to end segregation at white colleges and universities, among them Thurgood Marshall and Vernon Jordan Jr.
As a newly minted lawyer, Mr. Jordan worked on my successful case to desegregate the University of Georgia in 1961. (Now a Howard board member, he declined to be interviewed for this article.) In those days, the State of Georgia went so far as to pay black graduate students to study in other states if no black institution in Georgia offered the courses they wanted to take.
In my case, the University of Georgia had the only journalism school in the South — my dream was to be Brenda Starr, having read the exciting exploits of the comic strip character from an early age. Hamilton Holmes, who was also part of the lawsuit against the State of Georgia, had gone to Morehouse, the men’s H.B.C.U. in Atlanta, for almost two years before our victory. But the University of Georgia had more laboratory facilities than Morehouse, and Hamp, as he was known to his friends, wanted to be a doctor, so he chose Georgia.
The lawsuit made it possible for me and other students to pursue our dreams in places that had always been closed to African-Americans. Little did any of us realize the price many black colleges would pay for equal opportunity.
Take Fisk University, a leading black college in Nashville that graduated an army of freedom fighters who risked their lives to bring about equality and change in the South, as well as the lead attorney in my case in Georgia, Constance Baker Motley. Enrollment reached a little over 1,500 in the ’70s. Today, Fisk has 645 students. And like other H.B.C.U.’s whose enrollments are 1,000 or less, the prognosis for survival is not good.
The economic issues that bedevil higher education in general are even more disruptive in the H.B.C.U. community, in part because many of the students are first in their families to go to college. Forty-six percent of students at historically black colleges come from families with incomes lower than $34,000, and half qualify for federal low-income Pell grants, according to the United Negro College Fund, which finances scholarships for 37 private black colleges. The organization also manages a Gates Foundation scholarship program that allows disadvantaged students to choose any institution. Only 19 percent of the recipients have chosen black colleges.
Many families have had to scurry for alternative financing, or had to leave their dreams behind altogether, after the Department of Education recently toughened eligibility criteria for Parent Plus loans.
A coalition of black organizations have protested what William R. Harvey, president of the historically black Hampton University, called “a debacle.” Michael L. Lomax, president and chief executive of the United Negro College Fund, has urged the department to return to the old loan policy and be more transparent and inclusive in any future process. At an H.B.C.U. conference in September, Education Secretary Arne Duncan explained that higher credit requirements were “designed to protect parents and taxpayers against unaffordable loans,” but apologized for poor communication about the changes, and promised to facilitate appeals.
But damage has been done. Denials have led to some 17,000 fewer students attending black colleges, costing the institutions more than $150 million in revenue, according to the United Negro College Fund. Howard lost 585 students, though about half were readmitted thanks to an intense fund-raising campaign.
Enrollment at Howard has fallen from a high of 11,321 students in 1980 to 10,297 today, although this fall the university attracted the second-largest freshman class in 15 years.
Founded by church organizations and white philanthropists in 1867, Howard had a mission: to educate newly freed blacks after the Civil War. As a result, though it is a private university, Howard has enjoyed special appropriations from the federal government — $200 million in the past decade. But as a result of congressionally mandated, across-the-board cuts — a.k.a., the sequester — Howard lost $2 million last year.
As Eleanor Holmes Norton, Washington’s congressional representative, put it: “Because of its historic reliance on government funds, that made Howard better off, but now, with the sequester, Howard, which was better off, is now worse off.”
THIS PAST SEPTEMBER, Howard students demonstrated behind a barrier as trustees, faculty members and the university president marched into the stately brick Cramton Auditorium for the fall convocation. The orderly but vocal students wore signs that read: “Transparency, Accountability and Responsibility” and “No More Howard Runaround.” Students took aim at the chief financial officer, demanding his removal, and the chairman of the board, Addison Barry Rand, head of AARP, the advocacy group for senior citizens.
“Do you run AARP like Howard University?” one sign read. And others: “Don’t tweet about it. Be about it.” “Save the Mecca.” “Stop Outsourcing Jobs” (a reference to the chief financial officer, an independent contractor).
Glynn Hill, editor of Howard’s student newspaper, The Hilltop, summarized the mood on campus for me this way: “Students and the alumni that we’ve engaged on Twitter are both anxious and on the edge of their seats to see how the university continues to move forward.”
Howard has been in turmoil for several years over its fiscal direction as well as a series of public relations blunders, notably the news of bonuses to high-level administrators amounting to $1.1 million amid cost-cutting and tuition increases. In a letter to trustees last June, Howard’s academic deans — at the moment, 6 of the 13 are interim — charged that “fiscal mismanagement is doing irreparable harm” to the university, and urged they remove the C.F.O., who had recommended the bonuses (he and the university parted ways in November).
Eric Walters, then faculty senate chairman, in his own letter had called administrative actions “morally repugnant” in light of tuition and fee increases, which have amounted to some 40 percent over four years (to $22,883). He also cited noncompetitive faculty salaries, faculty furloughs, inadequate funding for graduate students and degree offerings being slashed.
“You cannot grow a university by overly cutting,” Dr. Walters told me recently. “Poor decisions made in terms of staffing have come back to haunt us. You will drain the life out of the faculty.”
If the pot was boiling at the Mecca, it was stirred by Renee Higginbotham-Brooks, a Howard graduate, lawyer and vice chairwoman of the board, who last April sent a letter to trustees with a dire warning: Unless some “crucial decisions” were made promptly, the university would be gone in three years. She called for the dismissal of Mr. Rand and Dr. Ribeau, citing poor fiscal management and blasting expenditures like $107 million for two new dorms, although they were funded by bonds.
The letter somehow went public, leading to board “hiccups,” as one trustee put it. (Members would talk only anonymously because of this sensitive time of transition at Howard. Mr. Rand and Dr. Ribeau did not respond to repeated requests for interviews. Ms. Higginbotham-Brooks said she had nothing more to say on the matter.)
While board hiccups are not exclusive to Howard, it is not often that an institution’s internal politics hit the fan and the news media. And when they did, Mr. Rand countered in a statement that the university had balanced its budget for the past four years and restored its endowment of more than $500 million to prerecession levels. The bonuses had been decided under the previous president but awarded under Dr. Ribeau.
Some faculty members, like Greg E. Carr, chairman of the Department of Afro-American Studies, said Dr. Ribeau had done a reasonably good job, given that he had come in during a recession and from a predominantly white institution, Bowling Green State University, that didn’t have the same issues, or students, as did Howard.
He praised Dr. Ribeau for setting in motion a plan to raise $25 million in scholarship funds and the biggest “academic renewal project” in the university’s history.
The project’s goal, supported by Dr. Frederick, was to become more competitive nationally by strengthening popular degree programs and shedding underpopulated ones, some with as few as a half-dozen students. Of 171 programs, 21 are being restructured, and 25 have been cut, including German studies, classics, art history, fashion and a master’s in public administration, as STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering and math) are being built up.
That plan, too, was controversial. After protests erupted, the university backtracked on some cuts, including retaining a B.A. in philosophy and in African studies.
“If you have a mandate to bring Howard into the 21st century, you have to be cognizant of the politics on the ground,” Dr. Carr said. “You can have that understanding, but you have to be able to leverage that understanding to build consensus to move forward.”
Dr. Ribeau “saw the writing on the wall” andstepped down in December but is being paid for the remaining 18 months on his contract, board members said. (The search committee expects to name a permanent replacement by the end of this school year.)
Not long after Dr. Ribeau’s departure, the board held its annual retreat to discuss the state of Howard and the way forward. Some former board members and big contributors attended, but one of those present said that less than half of the 33 trustees showed. Several told me that they are intent on reinventing the board. “We’ve moved on, toward building board unity,” one said. “We will be rebuilding expectations of the board members and weeding out people who don’t have time.”
MANY FAMILIAR with the Howard situation, as well as with other troubled H.B.C.U.’s — five have closed their doors in the past 20 years — insist that what is critical for getting back on track is understanding that “new occasions teach new duties,” in the words of James Russell Lowell.
Within 50 years, people of color will be the American majority. The associate director of the White House Initiative on H.B.C.U.’s, Meldon Hollis, shared with me estimates showing that by 2060 the population under 18 is expected to be 38 percent Hispanic, 33 percent white and 15 percent black. “And that,” he said, “is a demographic tidal wave that not only affects white schools but black schools, too.”
Already, two historically black colleges are now predominantly white — West Virginia State and Bluefield State, also in West Virginia — and one, St. Philip’s College in San Antonio, is predominantly Hispanic.
As a sign of things to come, Mr. Hollis recently journeyed to Brazil and worked out an agreement in which the Brazilian government will pay for 1,000 of its students to attend H.B.C.U.’s for two years.
“It is foolish to think that significant change can’t come to a sector like H.B.C.U.’s,” said John S. Wilson Jr., president of Morehouse. “It is happening now and there is no guarantee that we will all survive.” Dr. Wilson, a 1979 graduate of Morehouse, points to the example of women’s colleges.
“When I was at Morehouse in the late ’70s,” he continued, “there were 250 to 300 women-only colleges and now there are 47. Similarly, in the 1970s, somewhere between 75 and 85 percent of African-Americans in higher education were being educated inside H.B.C.U.’s.” Today, of African-American students in higher education, only about 9 percent are attending historically black colleges.
As Dr. Harvey of Hampton points out, “H.B.C.U.’s are not monolithic, just like white schools.” The Department of Education lists 100, including community colleges and religious schools. Some, like Hampton and the women’s college Spelman, have enjoyed enrollment growth and relative financial stability.
“The strongest and best colleges that will not only survive but thrive are the ones that can further clarify and amplify their value proposition,” Dr. Wilson said. At Morehouse, “we have to tout a stronger, clearer value proposition that can attract more of the best and most driven students. We are going to have to give them an experience on this campus that is so powerful that our pool of applicants will expand well beyond African-American men and beyond our borders.”
Still, it is likely to be a tough row to hoe. Morehouse, whose graduates include the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Dr. David Satcher and Spike Lee, lost 500 students between 2009 and 2013.
When he arrived at Morehouse in 2013, Dr. Wilson said, it was in deep financial trouble. Dr. Wilson, who has a master’s and a doctorate in administration, planning and social policy, cut $5 million in administrative costs, eliminated 75 positions and closed one residence hall. He calls the current time at Morehouse “a period of repair.”
Dr. Wilson, who is 56, is an example of what many argue is needed now to rescue black colleges: a new breed of leader who has an allegiance to the H.B.C.U. culture — the caring, almost familial culture that nurtured a young Wayne Frederick — but who can prepare students for a technology-based future and embrace new business models. Among the younger generation of presidents often cited are Walter M. Kimbrough, the 46-year-old president of Dillard in New Orleans (his Twitter name: @Hip HopPrez), and Dr. Frederick.
Dr. Frederick is confident that Howard can move forward. “It’s going to take a lot of hard work and elbow grease,” he said, adding, however, that if budget cuts continue to be enforced and no changes are made to the Plus program, the road is going to be tougher.
“I don’t know what families are going to do,” he said in a clearly despondent whisper.
His priorities include the things most agree need urgent attention simultaneously: a financial literacy program for students and their parents; more support for students early on, including fortifying academic advising, to help turn around a four-year graduation rate of 42 percent (63 percent within six years); and the development of new revenue streams and diversification of current ones, concentrating on what most H.B.C.U. presidents say is a major weakness: alumni giving.
That last goal, Dr. Frederick said, is “a complicated issue.” Howard graduates traditionally give to institutions in their community, he explained. “They tend to support local churches and local groups. They give not just of their money but of their time.”
Dr. Frederick, who also has an M.B.A., acknowledges that he has to take a hard look at Howard’s business model. “We have to diversify that revenue stream, including monetizing our real estate assets, reducing dependence on tuition and growing our endowment,” he said. He is working with a financial services company to try to reverse the declining fortunes of Howard’s teaching hospital, where cost overruns amounted to $21 million in the fiscal year 2012, cutting deeply into Howard’s overall budget. And like wealthier traditional institutions that are attracting students with low- or no-cost online courses, Howard is beginning to offer courses online.
When asked if Howard should wean itself from federal support, Dr. Frederick politely objected to the word. “I don’t see it as weaning,” he said. “The federal government appropriation is not just a support for Howard but is a support that’s in the national interest. Students at H.B.C.U.’s account for approximately 3 percent of all students enrolled at colleges and universities in the United States, but account for 18 to 20 percent of African-American college graduates. So they represent a very important pipeline. Also, a large number of Ph.D.’s in STEM are coming from H.B.C.U.’s, of which Howard is the No. 1 producer. So it’s definitely in the national interest. No doubt about that.”
Dr. Frederick plans to visit states already sending students to Howard — Maryland, New York and California — as well as go where there is potential, like Florida and Pittsburgh. He also hopes to marry Howard’s traditional mission with one that looks at the country’s changing demographics.
“We’ve fulfilled our mission around a lot of black students, but our charter was never really created solely for black students,” he said. “In the future, as we become a more global society, we will always be in a position to embrace the world around us.”
Mr. Hill, the student editor, who has been at Howard three years, said he already feels he is a part of the “last of vintage Howard.”
“We had a serious Afrocentric feel to the campus,” he said. “But now it’s fairly obvious that the campus has gotten a little lighter. Nowadays, you can’t count the number of white kids, and I had never seen Asians before now. Students are even playing Frisbee!”
Still, 93 percent of undergraduates at Howard are black, and African-Americans are likely to remain the majority for years to come, even as Howard and other black institutions grapple with “making a way out of no way,” to borrow the civil rights mantra.
During my visit to campus, students talked about how they had realized their dreams by coming to Howard. I met Jamila Mitchell, who wants to be an optometrist, and Miajah McGraw, a Spanish major, both from Virginia, at a popular coffee shop.
Ms. Mitchell, ranked fifth in her high school class, said she chose Howard because of the scholarship it offered covering tuition for four years and because, having attended a predominantly white school, she sought a different experience. Howard’s diversity — “all kinds of different black people, especially the international aspect” — came as a surprise, she said. “I learned to work with different groups of people on all sides of the spectrum.”
Both women said they felt academically prepared, but they complained that there were not enough chairs or spaces to study, and many of the classrooms were in need of renovation. In too many, Ms. McGraw said, “you burn up in summer and freeze in winter.”
Isabella Hazell El-Diery, a freshman from Massachusetts, has not been following the melodrama over Howard’s president. Certainly there was room for improvement, she said, but she has learned more than classroom lessons here. She had visited Howard three times before finally making her decision, swayed by her interest in international affairs and internship possibilities in the nation’s capital. “I felt it was somewhere I could learn to do great things,” she said. “Amazing people are always coming to Howard to speak.”
There was something else that was important to her identity, coming as she did from a mostly white high school. Her mother is Jewish, her father black. “I didn’t learn about slavery until I got here,” Ms. El-Diery said. “It’s also about being black here, and that’s important because you are learning about where you came from.”
These students, Dr. Frederick said, embody Howard’s sacred trust as well as his hope for Howard’s future. “Our contributions are still groundbreaking,” he said, “and are absolutely key to contributing to a more complex society.”
An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of the company that downgraded Howard’s credit. It is Moody’s Investors Service, not Moody’s Investor Service.