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Howard's President Steps Down Amid Tumult And Uncertainty

Is Howard University facing an existential crisis?

The Washington, D.C., institution, which is arguably the country's most prominent historically black university, has been buffeted by a tough economy and seeming dissent amongst its leadership. Tuesday, Sidney Ribeau, who'd been the university's president since 2008, announced he was stepping down but maintained that Howard was in solid shape. (Over the summer, Ribeau signed a contract extension to stay on as president for two more years. It's hard not to read between the lines here.)

"This is the time, this is the season, for me to retire from the presidency," he told Nick Anderson of The Washington Post. "We're focused, we're back on track and the momentum is building."

That characterization might sound surprising to many people who've been watching the school recently. Earlier this year, Ribeau wrote an internal memo that was obtained by the Washington City Paper in which he said that the school faced a "significant budget challenge," in part because of "a significant decrease in student enrollment in the fall semester along with other revenue shortfalls." Then in April, a vice chairwoman of Howard's board of trustees wrote a letter to her fellow board members in which she said the 146-year-old university was in "genuine trouble" and "would not be here in three years" unless it righted its fiscal ship. Besides the expected drop in student enrollment, the trustee pointed to the cumbersome operations of Howard University Hospital and the size of the university's payroll — "approximately 5,000 employees to serve less than 10,000 students," she wrote. The trustee also called for a no-confidence vote against Ribeau. (That feared drop in enrollment never materialized; the school's student body grew this fall by 3 percent.)

Last month, the university dropped 22 places on the U.S.News & World Report annual college rankings. And in a much more substantive downgrading, Moody's lowered Howard's credit rating, citing the economic drag from the hospital and its reliance on ever-skimpier federal funding. This year, the school received $222 million from the government, down $5 million from last year.

And as my Code Switch teammate Hansi Lo Wang reported last week, new, stricter guidelines for PLUS loans have hit historically black colleges and universities — HBCUs — particularly hard, as they're more likely to have first-generation college students from low-income families who don't have other ways to pay. (Arne Duncan, the secretary of education, apologized to HBCU presidents at a convention last week, saying the changes in the loan policy "could have been carried out better.")

The university reported that it had an endowment of $525 million, which would make it the largest endowment of any HBCU.

When Ribeau took over five years ago, he got a standing ovation for a speech in which he said he wanted Howard to recommit itself to better customer service. The dismissive, bureaucratic administration is an old trope among students and alumni at many HBCUs, but at Howard, the "A" building is especially notorious.

Marybeth Gasman of the University of Pennsylvania, an expert on and supporter of HBCUs, told me earlier this year this is no small thing — even as many HBCU graduates and alumni loudly rep their their alma maters, she said, their experiences with the financial aid and registrar's offices are so frustrating that they don't feel comfortable donating money once they graduate. They see their colleges as inefficient and poorly run. Gasman said Howard's alumni giving rate is 16 percent, which is low — but is four times higher than it was in 2008, when Ribeau took over. It's a potential revenue stream the university has thus far been unable to effectively tap.

"People have to not only give their support [to their alma maters] from their hearts but from their wallets," Gasman told me.

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