Howard University

A member of Howard University’s Board of Trustees has written her colleagues, claiming the acclaimed historical black college is in fiscal and management trouble. Renee Higginbotham-Brooks – who serves as a vice chairwoman on the trustee board – penned a letter to fellow members April 28. It was published in the Chronicle of Higher Education May 8 and cites her concerns about the institution’s stability. Higginbotham-Brooks wrote, “Howard will not be here in three years if we don’t make some crucial decisions now.”

Her concerns include increased competition from public colleges offering lower tuition and more scholarships; a large university workforce that’s depleting resources; and a lack of adequate fundraising to seek monies from alum and other prominent donors.

Higginbotham-Brooks has acknowledged that she was responsible for the letter, but also refused to comment further.

The Washington Post reports:

Rachel Mann, a spokeswoman for Howard, said Friday afternoon that the university would refer questions about the letter to the board chairman, Addison Barry Rand, who was traveling and was unavailable for an interview.

“Spirited debate and discourse are part of the culture of higher education,” Rand, who is chief executive of AARP, said in a statement. “The board and the university’s leadership team continue to work tirelessly to address many of the tough issues facing colleges and universities like Howard.”

Higginbotham-Brooks, a Howard graduate who is a lawyer in Fort Worth, did not immediately respond to e-mail and telephone messages left with her office. She has been on the board since 1997 and vice chairwoman since 2005.

Howard, a private institution founded in 1867, is one of the nation’s premier historically black colleges. Former president Bill Clinton addressed its commencement last month. The Fiske Guide to Colleges calls it “the flagship university of black America,” and U.S. News & World Report ranks it second among historically black colleges behind Spelman College in Atlanta.

Higginbotham-Brooks’ motives are being questioned in other analyses of her letter. The Washington Post reports the vice chairwoman is “upset about changes in the governance of the board that she believed would “marginalize” her position as vice chairwoman, which she has held since 2005.”

Another vice chair position was created in April.

“I was never consulted or advised of the bifurcation of my position as Vice Chair until one minute before I walked into the boardroom on Saturday,” Higginbotham-Brooks wrote. “I was shocked, truly offended and extremely disappointed with this under-handed tactic, which is inconsistent with the manner in which we do business as a Board.

Rand sees the additional position as standard for the governance boards at other institutions. “Having two vice chairs is an emerging best practice in higher education governance as reported by the Association of Governing Boards,” he said in a statement. “The Board decided on two vice chairs because of an increased focus on development and fundraising. We created a second vice chair to address administrative matters, both require tremendous time and attention.”

Despite Higginbotham-Brooks’ prediction that the “black mecca” will close in three years, Rand writes: “The University remains competitive and is continuing to grow.”

Howard is currently ranked the second-best historical black college in the United States and former president Bill Clinton delivered the May 12 commencement speech. The campus is undergoing campus renovations and has consistently produced top-notch alum from its pharmacy, medicine, dentistry and Ph.D. programs.

The current president, Sidney A. Ribeau, assumed the office in 2008. He has not commented on the letter.

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