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Whenever Bryan Weaver would think about that old, beige-colored building on the corner of 16th and Euclid streets NW, with its concrete portico and greenish security grills, warm memories would wash his mind. He’d remember those lazy Sundays when the music from the drum circle in the nearby park would come through the open windows of Meridian Hill Hall, inviting people to join the festivities. One of the few whites to live in the Howard University dormitory, he called it a “favorite foot-step into the rest of Washington.”
Taylor Tiamoyo Harris, an African-American woman who is the current editor-in-chief of the student newspaper The Hilltop, has similar sentiments: “[It] was a historical part of Howard. Living at Meridian was known as ‘rites of passage.’”
Past is past.
Howard’s president, Dr. Wayne A.I. Frederick, recently announced a 99-year ground-lease agreement with Jair Lynch Real Estate Partners; that company is expected to transform the 1942, eight-story building from 650 dorm rooms into 200 mostly luxury apartments. A small percentage of the units could be reserved for tenants who would pay 80 percent or less of the going market rate. That set-aside might help partially characterize the complex as “affordable housing,” providing an opportunity for developers to receive government subsidies and tax credits.
“I’m willing to accept there is an element of nostalgia,” said Weaver about his unfavorable reaction to the deal. After all, Howard built two new dormitories, replacing the rooms at Meridian Hill Hall. But he said the students who lived there enriched the community: They tutored low-income African-American and Hispanic children from the neighborhood, supported local businesses, and brought an important element of diversity to the area.
“The thing that is heartbreaking is people are making decisions based [primarily] on money,” continued Weaver, agonizing over potential hikes in property taxes, which have helped push out moderate- and low-income homeowners. Given its political and social history, he said, the university has a greater responsibility to consider the consequences of its actions.
Howard has received $22 million in advance lease payments from Lynch’s company. During a recent interview with Washington City Paper, Frederick emphasized that he isn’t selling the property. “We will collect revenues when condos are sold or from apartment [rents].” He declined to provide details about the revenue-sharing between the university and Lynch, however.
“We ask [ourselves], is Howard in desperate need of money?” said Harris. She and other students chastised the administration for its “lack of transparency” and its failure to provide any advance notice of the lease agreement or other recent decisions it has made that affect the entire university.
Frederick pushed back against the implication that he lacked an appreciation for the history of the dorm. “I lived in Meridian Hill in 1989,” he said, adding that gentrification in the neighborhood was already underway at that time. He cited the Envoy Apartments as an example. Built in 1918, the building initially served as a hotel. In the 1980s, it underwent a massive renovation. Back then, however, most people saw that as simply an improvement—not the kind of gentrification sweeping through communities like Columbia Heights. Assessments for Class 1 residential property in that neighborhood increased by 24.5 per cent between 2014 through 2016, according to documents provided by the Office of Tax and Revenue. Developing Meridian Hill into luxury apartments would exacerbate those dynamics.
Frederick said failing to “monetize” the university’s assets “would be irresponsible.”
“We can’t be emotive about everything we do,” he said. “At the end of the day, we have a fiduciary responsibility to see that we not only survive but that we thrive.”
“The finances of this university are complicated and dire,” he added.
Howard’s operating revenue for fiscal year 2016 is $822 million—down from $842 million in FY 2013. Its bond rating has been downgraded twice, leaving it with a BBB from Standard & Poor’s and a Ba2 from Moody’s Investor Service. It must pay $38 million this year to cover the cost of money it has borrowed, according to William Whitman, vice president of communications and marketing at Howard.
That fiscal portrait has unnerved many people anxious about the overall plight of historically black institutions. With integration has come choice—many African Americans are choosing previously all-white schools. Howard’s location in the nation’s capital and its legacy may have created the perception that it is immune to social and market forces. Here is the reality: The university once dubbed “The Capstone of Negro Education” and expected to celebrate its 150-year anniversary in 2017 is currently fighting for its life.
Between 2014 and 2015, more than 300 people were cut from the university and Howard University Hospital payrolls. Within the last four years, Howard has eliminated dozens of initiatives and academic programs, including the masters in educational administration and policy, the masters in human development, the bachelor of music education, and degrees in foreign languages including German and Spanish. While Whitman had promised to provide City Paper with information regarding how many students were impacted, he never did, despite repeated requests.
Nearly 200 students, mostly undergraduates, were kicked off campus in mid-February for failing to pay outstanding tuition and other fees; they owed a combined total of $2.5 million. “If they were going to do that, they should have kicked them out at the end of the semester,” said Harris. “It’s hard not just for the students but also for the parents.”
Then there is the television station: Howard is expected to participate in the Federal Communications Commission Incentive Auction scheduled for March 29. Up for grabs are broadcast rights of WHUT-TV, “the first African-American-owned public television station in the nation” and “the only university-licensed public television station located in the metropolitan Washington viewing area,” according to Howard’s website. That move has been decried by the School of Communications’ Howard Media Group, which is not affiliated with the administration but is composed of university faculty, students, alumni, and community leaders; the group advocates for policies that support the advancement of women and people of color in media companies.
“These are decisions that are super dangerous,” said Weaver. They also are significantly reconfiguring a historic institution.
Looking up the hill from Georgia Avenue and Howard Place NW, to the main campus, the view is of a collection of faded beige-colored structures. Walk inside a few of those buildings, including the one where the president’s office is located, and it’s almost like being shot back into the 1970s or 1980s. The floors of Founders Library—designed by African-American architect Albert I. Cassell and opened in 1939—buckle. As testimony to Howard’s neglect of its resources, a plaque, given on behalf “of people of South Africa by President Thabo M. Mbeki in honor of the Anti-Apartheid Movement in the University,” hangs in the library’s unguarded alcove.
“[Howard] is falling apart,” said E. Ethelbert Miller, a literary activist and Howard alum, who once directed the university’s Afro-American Studies Resource Center. Last spring, he and 80 others received pink slips. “If [Howard] is going to claim to be a black university, it has to protect those resources. I don’t want to bad-mouth the university, but I have to be honest.”
“We have not been investing in our physical plant,” Frederick said. Fortunately, the National Trust for Historic Preservation recently selected Founders as a “national treasure.” “It is the only site at a historically black college or university to [receive that designation],” the university boasted in its press release.
The honor is nice. But while the National Trust is committed to helping find money for preservation architects and others to make “Founders a creative learning space for the 21st century,” at the time of the announcement, it was unclear how much would be needed. And if Howard wants a complete renovation of Founders, it may have to raise most of the funds itself. The university can barely cover the cost of routine maintenance of other buildings on its various campuses. Overall, deferred maintenance could be more than $150 million, according to university officials.
“The school is going down,” said one sophomore I met at the Armour J. Blackburn University Center, another building in need of repair. She spoke on condition that her name be withheld, fearing reprisal from the administration. She served a smorgasbord of grievances: poor facilities, awful management, and neglectful treatment of students. “I fear possibly the school will no longer be here.”
The school’s demise may not be imminent, but Howard is severely wounded and betraying its remarkable narrative. In 1866, the First Congregational Society of Washington started a school for black clergy. One year later, white students were enrolled. Oliver O. Howard, who had been director of the federal Freedmen’s Bureau, became the school’s president; ultimately the university took his name. By 1872, more than 100,000 freed slaves had been educated there.
It wasn’t until 1927, in the midst of the New Negro Renaissance Movement, that the first black president, Mordecai Wyatt Johnson, was appointed to lead the institution. There had been 10 white presidents. “I am only the seventh black president,” Frederick told alumni during a meeting with them.
He was appointed in 2014, after first serving as provost under Sidney Ribeau, who was forced to resign his post in 2013 amid controversy surrounding an internal memorandum, leaked to the press. In it, Renee Higginbotham-Brooks, then vice chair of the Board of Trustees, asserted that Howard “will not be here in three years if we don’t make some crucial decisions now.”
Frederick was no stranger to the university. He enrolled in the school when he was 16; earned his bachelor’s and medical degrees from Howard; and he had his surgical residency at the hospital.
He completed post-doctoral research and surgical oncology fellowships at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, and later served as associate director of the Cancer Center at the University of Connecticut. He joked during our interview that in his youth he used to practice his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in Medicine, certain he would find the cure for sickle-cell anemia, from which he personally suffers. He returned to Howard in 2006.
Of his predecessors, Frederick said Johnson and James Cheek were standouts. The latter was only 37 years old when he took the helm in 1968. During his 20-year tenure, he grew the student population from 9,500 to 12,000; the colleges expanded from 11 to 18; and the budget increased from $43 million to $417 million. “Cheek worked tirelessly to make the argument [that] this is an Ivy League school with black students,” said Frederick.
I met and fell in love with Howard during Cheek’s tenure. It was an open campus; residents like me were free to use its resources. I regularly attended free workshops conducted by award-winning novelist John Oliver Killens and seminars presented by The Institute for the Arts and Humanities, headed by scholar and author Stephen Henderson. Some evenings I found myself sitting in the living room of famed poet Sterling Brown. When the small nonprofit I co-founded decided to dissolve, our papers were donated to Howard’s Moorland-Spingarn Research Center.
Thurgood Marshall, Zora Neale Hurston, Ossie Davis, Toni Morrison, Owen Dodson, and Andrew Billingsley—among others—had graduated from the school. That history didn’t just wow me, it captured some of today’s students like freshman Demani Wallace, who said he wanted to be “around people who look like me and want to be successful. I wanted to be in business. Howard has one of the top business schools in the country.” John Cochran, a budding actor, said he “came for an audition and fell in love with the environment. There are so many African-American intellectuals.”
Faculty Senate Chair Taft H. Broome Jr., who graduated from Howard, said he remembered living in Drew Hall in the 1960s. “I was elected president of the fifth floor; the vice president was Togo West [who went on to become secretary of the Army].” Broome compared what is happening at the university to Greek mythology: “A great hero is being brought down. But its nature is to defy death and come back stronger.”
In his bestselling book Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates (a former City Paper staffer) writes that he was “admitted to Howard, but was formed and shaped by ‘The Mecca.’ These institutions are related but not the same. Howard University is an institution of higher education. The Mecca is a machine, crafted to capture and concentrate the dark energy of all African peoples and inject it directly into the student body. The Mecca derives its power from the heritage of Howard University, which in Jim Crow days enjoyed a near-monopoly on black talent.”
That narrative and Howard’s huge physical presence imbue it with critical importance. Its real estate portfolio, valued at $1.5 billion, crisscrosses three wards and two quadrants in the District and parts of Maryland. Any changes in the way Howard functions and manages its real estate portfolio could have a broad impact on the District. “The Divinity school is prime location in Brookland, the same with the law school,” said Weaver.
The School of Divinity sits on 22 acres in Northeast, near Catholic University. Frederick visited that campus when he was still provost. “We charge some of the highest tuition and had the worst building,” he said. Frederick moved the school to the west campus, in Van Ness, “to have the opportunity to improve” the Brookland campus.
A decision not to return the school to that location could create the same kind of circumstances residents in Ward 4 faced when the federal government closed the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. The difference, of course, is that Howard is a private corporation, albeit nonprofit. It can do what it wants with its property without government intrusion, unless it needs zoning changes.
Frederick said he has no “intention of closing the Divinity school” and accused me of promoting “rumors and innuendos.” A university spokesperson later said via email that the school is “part of a broader development program for our east campus.”
Howard has contracted with the Urban Land Institute’s Advisory Services program to help it consider future uses of the Divinity school campus, according to a ULI spokesperson. While Howard officials said they want to return the Divinity School to the Brookland campus, they also have told ULI they want to explore other possible usages of that property.
“We’re not consultants,” said the spokesperson. “We’re under no obligation to come to the conclusion [the university] wants.” ULI has gathered a team of experts who will tour the campus, conduct closed-door interviews with key stakeholders, and issue a report that includes recommendations. “Nobody comes from Washington, D.C. We offer an objective, outside point of view,” continued the spokesperson. The Advisory panel will be on campus for one week in June.
D.C. Councilmember Brianne Nadeau, in whose Ward 1 Howard’s main campus is located, commended Frederick for “being smart about leveraging assets—physical property and intellectual property” it hasn’t leveraged for years. “Previously the focus has been on smaller, individual properties—like the Barry Place project, the Mary Church Terrell House—that are in the community. But now there’s a broader focus.”
“Its footprint has had an impact on what has been and what will be,” added Nadeau.
For years, some people in the city have been frustrated by the university’s failure to develop its property, particularly that fronting on Georgia Avenue NW. Now the Shaw neighborhood is experiencing a dramatic renaissance. The average values of private homes jumped from $150,000 in 2008 to $800,000 in 2014, according to the D.C. Office of the Chief Financial Officer. In the past two years, property assessments have increased between nine and 17 percent.
Howard has made attempts to join that stream of progress. In 2013, for example, it had proposed a town center in the 2100 block of Georgia Avenue NW, at the site of the old Bond Bread building. The development would have included housing, a grocery store, and other retail outlets. While it received an $11 million tax abatement, Howard ultimately canceled the deal with its developers, charging that the company had failed to meet certain benchmarks. That project was expected to yield as much as $2 million annually in lease income.
Weaver may be concerned about development, but some Shaw residents are interested in seeing the south Shaw renaissance move further north, connecting with the vibrancy of Petworth at Georgia Avenue and New Hampshire Avenue: There have been private conversations about demolishing the hospital.
Frederick was a tad more forthcoming about the hospital’s fate, making clear that it should not be confused with either the School of Medicine or the School of Dentistry. The academic achievement in the health science area is a “great American story,” he continued, adding that the university accounts for a large number of African-American medical professionals entering the market each year. That is “not something anyone should take lightly.”
The hospital predates the university, noted Frederick, referring to Freedmen’s Hospital. But it has been closed for decades. The current hospital was built in 1974; it occupies a large piece of land that fronts Georgia Avenue. Once it was a celebrated institution, with sparkling equipment, impressive research professionals, and well-known medical staff. Over the years, however, the equipment has aged, the institution has been mismanaged, and it has been unable to substantially diversify its client base; Frederick said that 88 percent of the patients receive either Medicare or Medicaid insurance.
“It also provides treatment to folks who have additional needs,” including those addicted to heroin or who have been diagnosed with HIV, said one of the medical professors. “It’s a walk-in testing site. If it closes, it could have devastating consequences of the overall health care delivery system in the city and the region.”
That fact is indisputable. Consider the ripple effects earlier this month when the hospital’s emergency room was closed after a pipe burst and caused significant flooding. Other medical facilities had to take up the slack. But a school suffering fiscal instability may not be able to afford the albatross that the hospital has become. The combination of poor management and meager private insurance accounts have helped produce tons of red ink.
“I don’t think we need to own [a hospital] in today’s world,” said Frederick. Howard certainly wouldn’t be the first university to shed the responsibility of operating one.
In 1999, George Washington University Hospital faced similar challenges; it entered into a partnership with Universal Health Services, Inc., which under the agreement got an 80 percent interest while the university retained a 20 percent interest. In 2002, a new hospital opened near Pennsylvania Avenue NW. Two years earlier, Georgetown University sold its hospital to MedStar; many of the school’s medical professionals were given contracts, according to the Baltimore Sun.
Frederick said he has placed the hospital in “a situation where it can thrive.” Last year, he turned over management of the hospital to the El Segundo, Calif.-based Paladin Healthcare Capital. It has made significant changes, like reducing staff and services, which apparently have produced some favorable results. The company has predicted a small profit of $5 million for this fiscal year. Whether that’s enough to justify keeping it open remains to be seen.
Howard’s leadership is concerned about maintaining training opportunities for its medical and health science students. Frederick said he wants to ensure a “strong academic affiliation agreement is in place.” Equally important, the cultural environment and cultural sensitivity must be retained. Translation: Its partner or buyer has to cater to African-American and minority students. “It’s not simply a business transaction,” he added. But as Frederick likely knows, diminishing opportunities for students would certainly affect Howard’s bottom line. It could reduce enrollment, thus adversely affecting the university’s boasted reputation as a top producer of black doctors and other medical professionals.
Declining to speculate about the possible closing of the hospital, Nadeau said, “It’s too soon to say what the city’s reaction might be to changes there. Howard is unlike any other property owner. Its impact is more acute because of how much property it owns.”
Mayor Muriel Bowser has certainly taken an interest in Howard. She launched part of the city’s Empowering Males of Color Initiative at the school. The university and her administration created a program that allows select students at Banneker High School to simultaneously enroll at Howard.
The District has also invested $1 million to help develop a “venture capital hub for start-ups and emerging companies” in the school’s Wonder Plaza retail complex. Bowser and Frederick have had two press conferences and one ground-breaking for the same project. The District government has predicted that companies that locate in the facility will create “strategic connections to Silicon Valley, investors, and partners.”
“For a long time we have put people in [industries],” Frederick said. “Now we will be putting out graduates who can create industries or own them.”
If Cheek guided massive growth at Howard, then Frederick may be presiding over a sort of retrenchment. His predecessor amassed a significant real estate portfolio, and Frederick appears determined to sell or lease property, removing it from the university’s direct management. Instead of growing undergraduate programs, he is systematically dissolving many of them, possibly reducing the attractiveness of the university to a population his predecessor aggressively courted.
Cheek came under fire at times for his expansionist agenda. Frederick has been feeling similar heat for his reductionist approach. Poet Miller said he faithfully donated to the university through regular payroll deductions. “I love the institution. [However,] I can’t see anything they did with [my] money.”
The personnel cuts have heightened frustrations among faculty who say they have been forced to serve multiple functions, taking them away from providing support to students or even engaging in necessary research and academic writing. The Hilltop’s Harris reported that the School of Communications had only two academic advisers; one left, leaving a dean to step in. Frederick said he has created an Office of Undergraduate Studies that will provide “advisement of students.” But while such an office does exist, the university’s website advises students with undeclared majors to report to the Office of Student Services. Others, like students at the School of Communications, are directed to the advisory center within their school.
Foreign students for whom English is a second language don’t have advisers or tutors. “Sometimes they have to go through qualifying exams, but a large percentage of them cannot pass the exams so they cannot continue in the program,” said one professor.
The budgets for students organizations have been cut, affecting the quality of their work and their ability to communicate. For example, the receptionist at the Student Government Association office commented that they did not have a phone. Students’ living standards also have been affected. In an open letter to Frederick, in the Feb. 8 edition of The Hilltop, Clarence Allen wrote “Our dorms suck… I am tired of feeling like I am camping in my room. I am tired of all the complaints over easily avoidable and unnecessary problems.”
“Sometimes I feel like it’s the students versus the administration,” the anonymous sophomore said. “The only time we get a response is when we take to social media.”
Then there are the concerns about Wi-Fi. Many professors use the Internet to make assignments, and students submit work using the same system. When the technology breaks down, their academic standard can sometimes be jeopardized, said students with whom I spoke.
Frederick agreed there “needs to be more administrative support,” which he said doesn’t mean more employees. Part of the issue, he said, is that more students are “playing more games, downloading more information. The equipment is dated. That’s part of the infrastructure needs.”
Those are the minor issues. The austerity has also created serious public safety concerns. This week, as many as 100 students protested the university’s handling of alleged rape cases. Within the last year there have been at least two such charges, according to students and police reports. University officials said they were unable to discuss specifics but that there is an ongoing, active investigation. “Howard takes matters of sexual assault very seriously,” the university said in a statement.
Not everyone thinks Frederick has done a poor job, however. “The biggest problem for Howard is the board getting in the way,” said one person familiar with trustees’ actions, citing a delay in efforts to enter into a property sale-lease back agreement. Declining to identify the specific property, he added, “You can’t stop [the president] on every corner and slam him down. What we need from the president is vision, and he’s got vision.”
That vision is at the core of the student and faculty clashes, however. The Howard Media Group argued that as it was advocating for more minority and women ownership of media stations, at the same time it was being cut “on our own turf” by the president. “I don’t know where this came from—the board?” said Carolyn Byerly, co-chair of the organization.
Frederick and the board want to sell the spectrum used by WHUT. There has been increasing demand for these invisible waves by cable and mobile phone providers. Tom Giovanetti, president of the Institute for Policy Innovation, noted on RealClearTechnology, “Spectrum is the most unappreciated and underrated of our natural resources. In economic terms, spectrum is particularly scarce, since there is an absolutely fixed amount of spectrum available.”
“We asked, what is the participation of students? Most of the training academically occurs throughout the city. [WHUT-TV] is [only] one of the sites used,” Frederick said.
Harris said the television station is an important outlet and opportunity for students like her. Byerly argued that at least two court cases have asserted that spectrum is “a public resource owned by the public.” The auction could mean that it would be privatized and that the public would have to pay for it. The media group wants the university to consider other options, including developing a partnership with another broadcaster.
“We are trying to maximize revenue streams so to reduce the burden on students,” said Frederick. “I think people don’t want to deal in fact. We have to recognize the value of what we have.”
In fairness, Howard was in turmoil before Frederick became president. Between 2008 and 2012, the university increased the amount of institutional financial aid provided to students from $40 million to $110 million, said Frederick. “Whatever blame there is for Howard cannot be blamed on the presidents,” said Broome, the Faculty Senate chair. “Howard has not achieved as a result of the board action… The board brought in presidents, the board took them out.” The effects of unstable leadership and questionable management decisions have rippled into the present.
In a letter to board Chair Stacey J. Mobley, dated Feb. 16, Broome raised concerns about the Faculty Senate’s lack of involvement in governance decisions and how challenges are being handled. “The financial issue will not be resolved by the university’s ad hoc approach to episodic financial opportunities that too often backfire and degrade the faculty’s pride in academic excellence, that betrays the absence of a strategic plan, and that chips away at our treasures—WHUT, the Divinity School property, the Meridian Hill property, etc.—thereby demoralizing everybody.”
Frederick said, however, that “we are in a very good place.” He noted that despite Higginbotham-Brooks’ prediction that Howard would close in three years, “the university is still here. It has a $600 million endowment, 160 programs, and the largest number of PhDs.”
He knows Howard hasn’t seen the catbird seat for years. A malaise has settled over historically black colleges and universities nationally. At one point, a South Carolina Legislature panel considered closing down South Carolina State University; fortunately that didn’t happen. Famed Fisk University had to part with its Alfred Stieglitz art collection; that sale yielded only $30 million.
Howard’s fiscal health is equally fragile. For one thing, Frederick said that a whopping 82 percent of its operating revenues are tied in some way to the federal government. He jokingly told alumni that “If the federal government sneezes, we get pneumonia—in both lungs.”
“The biggest worry I had [in 2014] was whether or not we would have a government shutdown,” continued Frederick. In 2010, the university received $206,031,000 from the Department of Education; the feds provided $28,946,000 for the hospital. The allocation to the university is down to $193 million while the subsidy to the hospital has remained constant at $29 million, according to Howard spokesperson Whitman. A Republican president and Republican-controlled Congress could mean continued erosion of federal support.
“Congress needs to step in and give [a special] one time allocation of $100 to $150 million, so the president can go in and bring the infrastructure up to standard,” said a high-level university source. But that seems unlikely.
Frederick has said the university must become “less dependent” on the federal government. “It has to be a smaller percentage of what we do.” He declined to indicate how much money the university would need to achieve that goal.
Financial stability may include further reductions. This fiscal year, 52 people—37 administrators and 15 faculty members—were laid off. More programs and initiatives are also expected to be dissolved. “I don’t think we need to have 19 divisions,” Frederick said. He also said he wants to shift the population mix, increasing to 30 percent or more the number of graduate and professional students. “We have the largest African-American graduate and professional program in the country. The only institution like us is Harvard University.” That would mean reducing undergraduate enrollment.
Can he get buy-in from the university community? Maybe.
Despite criticism, people still have good feelings: “It’s a good school. It’s capable of being a better school,” said student Harris.
“I’ve taught at much better funded schools with nicer offices. But I didn’t have the kind of students I have here,” Byerly said. “It’s really going home at the end of the day and feeling satisfied and being satisfied on more than one level. There is something that happens here that might not happen at another university.”
Frederick has a lot of work to do to maintain that goodwill and keep the university afloat, however. He told me he was on the phone before our interview, speaking with “a seven-figure donor.” He declined to reveal his fundraising goal. Two days after our interview, he was scheduled to hit the road: Atlanta, then Winston-Salem, later Columbia, S.C.—all the while, no doubt, singing that Barrett Strong song: “Money don’t get everything it’s true/What it don’t get I can’t use/Now give me money/That’s what I want.”