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Howard University is already dealing with a budget crunch and rowdy sorority girls. But now, according to a discrimination lawsuit, it could have a new problem: an unusual way of measuring employees’ performance. Howard’s former top human resources official allegedly had a strange phrase to describe top workers: “H.N.I.C.,” or “Head Nigger in Charge.”

Jeannette Frett, who worked for James Jones while he was the university’s executive vice president for human resources, claims that Jones repeatedly announced in 2011 that he was the H.N.I.C. He also liked to discuss which other Howard employees were H.N.I.C., according to her lawsuit, and was happy to explain the acronym to confused white executives:

When [Jones] later realized that the white Cabinet officers did not know the meaning of “H.N.I.C.,” [Jones] contacted the white Cabinet officers to clarify that “H.N.I.C.” meant “Head Nigger in Charge.”

The acronym has a sinister connotation, according to Frett, who is suing the university and Jones for discrimination and back pay:

Historically, people who have referred to themselves as the “Head Nigger in Charge” have not taken kindly to anyone who they believe is challenging their authority, especially if it is a woman. [Jones’] continued and frequent reference to himself as “H.N.I.C.” was used to emphasize his authority and discourage any challenge to his actions and directives.

A spokeswoman for Howard declined to comment on the lawsuit. Jones, who left the university in November 2012, according to the lawsuit, couldn’t be reached for comment.

Photo by Flickr user NCinDC used under a Creative Commons license