A few weeks back, I attended a talk at Howard University in which my fiancee was guest-teaching a class on public relations and integrated marketing. Before I got to the class, I went to the bookstore and bought a Howard University crewneck sweater. I’m a huge advocate for and supporter of HBCUs—I make a monthly donation to Morehouse College, thank you very much—so whenever I’m near one, I try to buy a shirt or something.
My fiancee, a Howard alumna, noticed my sweatshirt and joked about my purchase, and I told her, with my best Morehouse Man airs about me, that I like to support lesser institutions. She said she’d open up her lecture with that.
She did, and the students understandably scoffed, and a few pointed out to me that “Howard was No. 1,” referring to their ranking as the top-rated HBCU. My response: “You should be.” As a graduate of Morehouse College, one who is fiercely protective of my institution and my sister school, Spelman College (no shade to Bennett College), I’ve had so many debates about which school is better that I’ve lost count. But the truth is, Howard University—the Mecca—should always be the top-rated HBCU. Always.
While I will always think that there is absolutely no better school on this earth for black women than Spelman College (and I think the outcomes probably support this), Howard does do and is capable of doing things that most other HBCUs just don’t have the bandwidth for. It has a law school, a dental school, a hospital, a college of pharmacy, a veterinary services track in the medical school. Morehouse and Spelman are great, but they’re colleges. We produce leaders who all have to attend other schools for our advanced degrees; you can get them all from Howard if you so choose.
While Howard is a great school, it is also fraught with the myriad issues that come with attending an HBCU. Accreditation issues, financial aid issues, housing issues, etc. When I attended Morehouse in the late ’90s—on scholarship—I was placed on academic probation in my sophomore, junior and senior years for financial reasons. Each time, I had to walk into Gloster Hall, our administration building, and physically show them a copy of my scholarship, which I actually kept with me the entire four years I was there, and they’d hit a button. Probation issue cleared up. That’s ridiculous.
Now, all of us who attend HBCUs speak of those times with fondness and how they prepared us for life and made us stronger, but that doesn’t negate the fact that fighting with the administration should not be part of a college experience. I’m also aware that this also happens at predominantly white institutions, but it’s considered par the course for HBCUs.
What’s happening at Howard University right now is nothing new, per se. It’s no less distressing, but unfortunately, it’s not uncommon. Some administrators and students stuck the school for some financial aid. Accusations of embezzlement and negligence, students taking over Howard’s “A” building (their administration building) with demands, including the ouster of the president, Wayne A.I. Frederick. It’s just another day at an HBCU. As an alumnus of Morehouse College, I’m no stranger to this sort of problem.
It seems like for the past 10 years, Morehouse has stayed in the national spotlight for something or other: the controversial ousting of our previous president, crime, respectability politics, rape and sexual assault, LGBTQ issues, etc. And our enrollment and financial stability have suffered because of it.
When I attended Morehouse College, our enrollment was about 3,000 students. According to the 2015 Morehouse College Fact Book, enrollment was down to about 2,160 more recently. That’s a huge difference, especially since Morehouse College sends many black men into graduate programs in medicine, STEM fields, law and more. Losing almost 1,000 students creates a huge ripple in the black community. And what those numbers largely show is that no school, no matter how highly regarded, is impervious to negativity.
I mention all of that about my beloved Morehouse because if Howard University is “the Mecca,” then what happens there impacts what happens elsewhere. I don’t think there’s a Howard without Morehouse and Spelman, and vice versa. It’s already harder to get students into HBCUs than it used to be. Despite showing an uptick in the amount of applications to HBCUs—I believe Spelman College saw its highest number of applicants ever for the upcoming academic year—some seriously bad press can undo all of that. It’s no wonder the president attempted to keep that information out of the public, as I’m sure most school administrators would.
But if things go bad at Harvard, they’ll be all right. Nobody is going to determine that Harvard isn’t worth attending. Many in our own community already question the utility of HBCUs, so drama adds fuel to the “Shut them down” fire. Nonblack people also struggle with understanding, ignorantly, why HBCUs even still exist, since racism is “a thing of the past.”
Prospective parents and students thinking that a school administration is negligent and that students are running amok with their financial aid dollars makes Big State University Without a Financial Problem look more appealing. You can’t live on name alone forever.
If these types of problems persist, as they always seem to, they threaten the vitality of our prized institutions’ financial viability. And think of that trickle-down effect on the lesser-known schools that rarely get any attention unless something bad happens. While the Howards, Hamptons, FAMUs, North Carolina A&Ts, Morehouses and Spelmans can likely withstand most of the storms, others might not.
Just look at Morris Brown, a former prominent member of the Atlanta University Center through most of its history that was forced to damn near shutter in 2003 because of financial mismanagement on the part of the administration, resulting in a loss of (vital) federal funding and accreditation. Now there’s but a handful of students, and it’s still not accredited.
Do I think that Howard, with its endowment of half a billion dollars, will ever get there? No. But I also didn’t think that Morris Brown, one of the few HBCUs actually founded by black people, would fold. Sometimes the levees break.
Howard University needs to get its ship right. It has to. It’s important not only for the students it enrolls, the students it might enroll and the parents footing the bills, but also for the community at large. Certain symbols of black excellence, like Howard University, need to remain in their prominent spot as reminders of where the best of black America are being educated and schooled.
Morehouse College is still Morehouse College, and the term “Morehouse Man” will always have a certain ring to it. But way more people than should attach negativity to the Morehouse name and brand right now, something that I know our new administration is focused on undoing. And it can be done, because it has to be.
There’s enough negative attention internally; the last thing we need is for the larger communities to view our institutions in that light, or to put us in a position where it’s hard to defend them. Because without Howard, where does that leave the rest of the HBCU community?
Howard University matters too much for us to ever have to find out.