HOWARD University President Wayne A. I. Frederick, MD won high praise when he persuaded famed, award-winning actor and alumna Phylicia Rashad to join the faculty as dean of the newly named Chadwick A. Boseman College of Fine Arts. Leveraging the popularity and legacy of two African American artists—one dead, the other much alive—seemed brilliant.
Sure, Rashad stumbled briefly when, after Bill Cosby won release from prison on what seemed a procedural technicality, she tweeted “Finally a terrible wrong is being righted; a miscarriage of justice is corrected.” She had played his wife for 12 years on the Bill Cosby television show; there was history there.
Rashad’s personal sentiment was poised to undo the intensive and aggressive work in which Frederick was engaged, however. Unsurprisingly, his administration slapped back in a press statement that she wasn’t speaking for the university. Moreover, the administration wrote, her words “lacked sensitivity towards survivors of sexual assault.”
She understood the messenger and his message. Rashad followed with a second tweet, asserting that she “fully supported survivors of sexual assault.” If she wanted to start a fight with her new employer, she could have reminded Frederick that some Howard students found the university equally insensitive to victims of sexual assault. Instead, she let it end there—just in time for yet another smart, or what some have called “slick,” Howard move.
Don’t think for one minute that Howard is the place of milk and honey or its president some near God--despite impressive maneuvers during the past 16 months. Many students remain unhappy with management. Long-time faculty have complained about the inability to secure tenure and there is growing concern about efforts to eliminate certain stakeholder voices from the board room.
“For the first time in [the] university’s history, alumni from six decades and [current] students are on the same page regarding shared governance,” one source deeply involved with the latter controversy told me recently.
“There is equal outrage about stakeholder suppression and dilution. We are working and hoping for meaningful solution with the Board of Trustees,” added the source.
Those problems and others have been overshadowed by Frederick’s recent announced that Nikole Hannah-Jones will soon join the faculty.
The Pulitzer Prize winner, creator of the New York Times’ 1619 Project, the winner of the MacArthur Foundation’s so-called Genius Award, accepted the post at Howard, forever the Capstone of Negro (African American) Education, after she was much insulted by a public tenure fight at her Alma Mater, the University of North Carolina. She ultimately decided to walk away from that battle, although after weeks of negotiations, pressure from the school’s faculty and the media, she finally won what she wanted from UNC.
At Howard there wasn’t all that drama. She will become the Knight Chair in Race and Journalism at the Cathy Hughes School of Communications. Hannah-Jones will establish and lead the Center for Journalism and Democracy. The Knight Foundation, the John D and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Ford Foundation and a $20 million anonymous donor will pick up the tab.
“I was very intentional in making that choice, and I hope that it will help others to consider that maybe they can take their talents to [Historically Black Colleges and Universities] as well,” Hannah-Jones said during a media interview soon after her appointment.
“I am going to be joining an already excellent faculty at Howard, at a school that is already producing amazing journalists. But I certainly know it is rare for someone at my point in my career to go into a historically Black college,” she added.
Some of the money Frederick and his team gathered to seduce Hannah-Jones, also will be shared with Ta-Nehisi Coates, a bestselling author and another MacArthur Fellow. Frederick announced that he has been named the Sterling Brown Chair in the College of Arts and Sciences.
During an interview with NPR, Coates disclosed that he had been in discussions off and on with Frederick for the past five years. Maybe the price was right this time. Who knows?
Coates said his pending return to Howard was like coming home. “This is the faculty and community that made me the writer that I am today,” he added.
Truth be told, the Howard of today is not the Howard of those days when Coates roamed the campus looking for personal purpose and meaning inside the struggle for African American racial equity and reparations. Still, there is no question that Frederick scored a trifecta of artistic achievement in academia, and during the time of COVID-19 no less.
It may not have been the coup of the century for an historically black university. Nevertheless, Frederick effectively pulled off the Glitterati Hustle, ensuring even more money for the institution through student enrollment, research and other vehicles specific to universities.
“Five years ago, we would not have been (as) nimble an organization or stable enough to be able to do that. We certainly are now,” Frederick told the Washington Post earlier this month. “I would also say that we’ve had a clear vision. We’ve been implementing a strategic plan.”
He’s right. Five years ago, when I interviewed Frederick for a story in the Washington City Paper, Howard was in deep trouble. It was collapsing financially before everyone’s eyes.
Frederick crisscrossed the country, meeting with alumni who had deep-pockets and who had friends with deep-pockets. Using board members with strong connections on Capitol Hill, he called in political and financial favors. The university put a ‘for sale’ or ‘for lease’ sign on several pieces of valuable property, against strong opposition from students and DC residents. At one point, Frederick contemplated auctioning off the WHUT-TV’s license.
Equally disconcerting, he savagely cut degree programs and cut faculty, some learned of their termination only by discovering a larger than usual sum of money in their checking accounts. Frederick also pushed out more than 200 students who hadn’t paid their tuition on time. Topping all of that, the university’s buildings, many more than 50 years old, were crumbling.
Saying it was ugly would be an understatement.
Frederick was unapologetic about his campaign to save the school. He argued that failing to “monetize” the university’s assets “would be irresponsible.”
“We can’t be emotive about everything we do,” he told me then. “At the end of the day, we have a fiduciary responsibility to see that we not only survive but that we thrive.”
Now, as part of that continuing effort, Frederick is executing the Glitterati Hustle.
Ironically, Hannah-Jones’ decision to turn to Howard as the rescue from the bitter battle over tenure at UNC is similar, though less high-profile, to a battle underway at the place some call The Mecca. “I am a member of a devalued and disrespected faculty at Howard,” Imani Light wrote in an Open-Letter to Hannah-Jones. “The Administration’s leadership practices have soiled the bright and beautiful experiences in teaching that push me into my classes daily but have dimmed my formerly boundless, excited joy.”
Light offered in her letter that she signed the petition in support of Hannah-Jones. Light said she assigned her students the 1619 Project and that she was happy to see Hannah-Jones join the faculty.
Not unlike Hannah-Jones, Light argued she, too, is being discriminated against. The perpetrators are not white administrators or white trustees.
“Like all universities in this moment in time, Howard relies significantly upon a faculty of full-time, non-tenure-track professors. We hold the same terminal degrees our tenured and tenure-track colleagues hold,” continued Light, noting that she and others in a similar position conduct research, get published, teach multiple courses each semester while mentoring their students.
Three years ago, she and other faculty organized and voted to create a union. “Since that ratifying vote passed, Howard University has rivaled the likes of Amazon and Wal-Mart in their efforts to first block and then break the Union of non-tenure-track faculty,” Light wrote, adding that the group is fighting to end mandatory annual reapplication for their jobs; end the seven-year limit for non-tenure track employment; and raise salaries. A lecturer at Howard, even one with a doctorate, can earn as little as $48,000.
“As you begin your work on The Hilltop, we hope you will stand with us in insisting our Administration reach a fair and equitable contract with our Union of Professors and that they do so quickly to end a three-year long embarrassment,” Light said.
“And if it comes to it, as it appears that it will, we hope you will even join us in solidarity as it may be necessary to absent ourselves from the work until fairness and equity become part of the Administration’s agenda,” she added.
Light shouldn’t count on Hannah-Jones stepping out and stepping up. (See the Rashad-Cosby reaction as example of the university’s potential reaction.) And don’t count on Coates, either.
Meanwhile, other students and faculty are also searching for allies after receiving the proverbial sucker punch in the gut from the board of trustees. Earlier this month, board chairman Laurence C. Morse announced that students, alumni and faculty would no longer serve on the governing board.
“Over the last year, the Board underwent an extensive review of its current governance structure to ensure it is both in keeping with best practices of modern universities and designed to optimally engage, seek input, and communicate with university stakeholders,” he said in a public statement to the university community. The review was submitted to the board’s Committee on Governance in February 2021.
“The Board voted unanimously on June 11, 2021, to approve a single unitary class of trustees to serve in a traditional fiduciary role for the university, phasing out trustee roles for students, faculty, and alumni over the next year,” continued Morse.
“Student, faculty, and alumni perspectives are, and remain, essential to our future shared success. To this end, the Board affirmed and will adopt a number of additional mechanisms and forums across the university to solicit and provide broad input from a wide array of university stakeholders, particularly faculty and students,” he added.
That last bit is laughable given. Didn’t the board just slam the door on students, faculty and alumni without any input from them?
Writing on Twitter, Paul Lisbon, a student at Howard Law School, may have best captured the irony of
the dynamics: “The most inexplicable part of shutting student, faculty, [and] alumni voices out of Howard’s Board of Trustees is that the choice replicates the elitism [and] supremacy of the structures that necessitated Howard’s creation.”
Who would disagree with that?