In April, I reported on an internal Howard University staff memo from President Sidney Ribeau announcing that the university would be making cuts to address a “significant budget challenge.” The memo cited “a significant decrease in student enrollment in the fall semester, along with other revenue shortfalls and an anticipated reduction in Howard’s federal appropriation due to sequestration,” and laid out budget savings through a limited closure of the university during spring break, a reduction of salaries for senior administrators, a temporary suspension of contributions to the university’s employee savings plan, and a restructuring of the university’s healthcare benefits.

At the time, Howard spokeswoman Kerry-Ann Hamilton said the changes were a response to the recession, and that “Howard’s finances are stable, its endowment is secure, and its budget and cash flow are actively managed.” But on Friday, the Chronicle of Higher Education published a letter (also printed by the Washington Post) from a vice chairwoman of Howard’s board of trustees to the board stating that “our beloved University is in genuine trouble and ‘time is of the essence,'” and that “Howard will not be here in three years if we don’t make some crucial decisions now.”

The letter, from Howard alumna and Texas lawyer Renee Higginbotham-Brooks, points to five sources of Howard’s troubles:

*The combination of fewer students who can arrange financial aid, coupled with high school counselors who are steering students to less expensive state and junior colleges, has resulted in lower enrollment and this trend is expected to continue.

*Howard’s Federal appropriation is expected to be decreased because of sequestration and the rationale for the University’s existence is expected to be challenged since African American students can attend any college or university today.

*The Hospital has become a serious drain on the budget of the University and we need to either sell it or get the D.C. government to properly reimburse us for the care provided to its citizens.

*We lack an infrastructure for fundraising to replace decreasing tuition revenue and shrinking Federal dollars, and we lack access to the larger philanthropic community.

*We have too many employees on our payroll (approximately 5,000 employees to serve less than 10,000 students) and we cannot afford this!

The letter also charges Ribeau with “lackluster job performance” and criticizes his personal relationship with the board chairman Addison Barry Rand. But it’s the financial worries that are most threatening to the 146-year-old historically black college.

Hamilton maintains that the university’s finances are sound. “Howard University remains academically, financially and operationally strong,” she says in an email. “As a result of fiscal discipline, Howard’s finances are stable, we have balanced our budget for three consecutive years and cash flow are actively managed. The endowment continues to grow and restored the endowment to pre-recession levels of more than $500 million.”

Hamilton says that Howard has so far delayed making changes to its staffing structure in order to preserve jobs, but that might soon change. “Going forward, long-term structural changes are required of us to further strengthen our business model at the University and Howard University Hospital,” she says. “Whether these structural changes will require layoffs or can be achieved through attrition is yet to be determined.”

Photo by Flickr user NCinDC used under a Creative Commons license