To understand American history, Jon Lauck says you have to understand the Midwest's role in some critical events.
Classes started at Howard University this week. Students are returning after a summer in which the historically black university in Washington, D.C. has been in the news.
In April, a Howard trustee warned in a provocative letter released to the press that the school “will not be here in three years if we don’t make some crucial decisions now.”
Thirteen deans from Howard followed up in June with a letter to the board of trustees that said “fiscal mismanagement is doing irreparable harm to the University’s academic programs, institutional reputation and future viability.”
The school has announced it will cut 75 positions.
On a more positive note, Howard recently announced plans to launch an online university that will offer degree and certificate programs.
A number of historically black colleges and universities have been hit hard by the recession, but historically black schools are also facing the fact that black students have more choices for college than in the past.
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW. Howard University, one of the country's most prominent Historically Black Colleges, is facing some major challenges as students go back to class this week. This spring, a Howard trustee warned that the school will not be here in three years if we don't make some crucial decisions now. The school then announced it would cut 75 positions, and 13 deans from Howard wrote a letter to trustees saying fiscal mismanagement is doing irreparable harm. Well, we want to check in. First with Anthony Miller. He's president of the student association at Howard. And Anthony, we know that Howard is trying to assure students that things are fine, but are you and they worried?
ANTHONY MILLER: I think a lot of students are definitely worried, but the future of Howard is I think very solid. We are not without challenges. The financial situation for a lot of students, you know, they're not the best. With the changes in the Pell Grants and Parent PLUS loans, a lot of the students at Howard utilize those to attend school.
YOUNG: These are government grants.
MILLER: Mm-hmm. And they've changed the regulations for those. So a lot of students are not eligible. That puts a strain on their budgets which has a negative effect on the school.
YOUNG: Well, we understand that Howard and other HBCUs - these are Historically Black Colleges and Universities - have a unique role and because of that they may be getting hit harder by cutbacks and things like Pell Grants. Marybeth Gasman is the associate professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania, and she told the website GREO(ph) that HBCUs suffer disproportionately when these things happen because they have such a commitment to serving disadvantaged kids.
MILLER: That hits the nail right on the head. We don't like to turn people away. One of our mottos is service and really just providing to people that may never be able to repay us, and that's a gift and a curse.
YOUNG: Well, what about the fact that fewer students might be choosing Howard than in the past? We spoke about this with the president of Morehouse, the fact that African-American students have so many more choices than they might have decades ago when the schools were started and that even now some of them can't afford the tuition? In that letter we mentioned from the deans of Howard, they write they're worried about a decline in student enrollment because of a 44 percent increase in tuition. Now, tuition is still very low, around 22,000. That's thousands less than George Washington University, for instance. But is there a sense that the tuition might be climbing too high and that so many African-Americans have other choices?
MILLER: Yes. There are, you know, a wealth of options for, you know, any and all students now, but I think an HBCU education is unlike any other. It shows you the history and it has a bigger focus on how African-Americans have been a part of effecting change in this country and around the world.
YOUNG: One last concern that's been raised - crime. Howard senior Omar Sykes killed in July. He was robbed. Also a reported rape. This is not unusual for city schools. We are on the campus of Boston University. We understand that. And other D.C. schools we mentioned, George Washington University and Georgetown have both had more sexual assaults in recent years than Howard, according to the Washington Post. But it's still out there, that that's a concern. How do you deflect that?
MILLER: I mean we have to address it. I don't think we should deflect it. I think it's definitely a big concern. Omar Sykes was actually my roommate...
MILLER: ...and a very, very good friend of mine. So his passing, you know, he was shot and killed right on the street that we live on, the street that I walk down every day.
So it really could have been anyone, honestly, because it's really crazy to think about it. I'm sorry, it's just - right now (unintelligible) he was really close to me.
YOUNG: Yeah, yeah.
MILLER: And that happening, it's just really crazy, and it really opens your eyes to a lot of things. But I think to the safety issue, and education has to happen on the part of Howard students to understand that. A lot of Howard students come from suburbs, and a lot of times they may not understand the city life or something as small as locking your door. We also have to work better with the D.C. community. One of the things that we're - a new thing we're doing this year is community service day. We're going to go out into the community and help out elderly or feed the homeless and how we build this, you know, this relationship with the community and make sure that, you know, incidents like this, we're not going to be able to eliminate them all, but we can begin mitigate them and just deter them as much as possible.
YOUNG: Well, Anthony Miller, again, president of the student association at Howard University, I'm so sorry for your loss of your friend. And it sounds as if, you know, another reason you might want to keep going here is to, you know, get the education that he can't get now.
MILLER: Yes, definitely.
YOUNG: Yeah. Well, best to you.
MILLER: Thank you.
YOUNG: Well, let's bring in Aaron Wiener. He's with the Washington City Paper. Aaron, that's tough hearing that Anthony's friend was the one murdered, obviously affecting him and his friends. But your thoughts, is it fair to have it affect Howard's reputation?
AARON WIENER: Well, you know, it's made a bad press, and it's an absolutely tragic incident. But I think the fact of the matter is that, you know, D.C. is getting safer overall. And the area around Howard is also getting much safer and, you know, it shouldn't reflect on the school.
YOUNG: Aaron, you write that there are actually two Howard universities, the first academically and operationally strong - that's according to the Howard board chair, Addison Barry Rand - budget balanced, endowment up. But what's the second Howard?
WIENER: The second Howard is the one that the administration is not talking about much. It's the one that has seen its enrollment drop significantly. It's facing a budget crunch, and it's trying to find a way to get back on its feet and keep moving forward.
YOUNG: Well, how can your budget be both balanced and crunched?
WIENER: There are a couple of things going on. One is, of course, if you cut costs, your budget can technically be balanced even if you're not bringing in as much revenue, just because you're, you know, laying people off and eliminating positions. Beyond that, the university anticipates a pretty substantial cutback in its assistance from the federal government, which actually counts for more than a quarter of its budget.
YOUNG: Is that part of the sequester, the automatic cuts?
WIENER: Yeah, exactly.
YOUNG: Mm-hmm. Well, and we know - and you write that Howard is also having to look closely at some of its assets. It runs a hospital, a teaching hospital. But people are looking at - more closely at that, at a building project. Tell us about that.
WIENER: The part of town where Howard is located was decimated by the 1968 riots in D.C. But recently, property values have been coming way up, which means Howard is sort of sitting on a gold mine here. But Howard also has pretty dire student housing. So it's devoting most of that land to campus facilities. The one big project that was supposed to bring Howard a lot of money was this Howard Town Center development, which just a couple of months ago got put on ice because Howard canceled its agreement with the developer over some internal issues that they actually haven't totally disclosed.
YOUNG: How is this reverberating? It's not just Howard University, a black school. It is a black school in a very large black population in Washington, D.C. that points with pride to things like Howard University. So how is this - what are the rumblings about this?
WIENER: No one wants to see it go anywhere. I think there's just so much uncertainty in the air. You know, it has a lot of people worried that the future may not be as bright as the past for the university.
YOUNG: Aaron Wiener, a reporter at the Washington City Paper in D.C. Aaron, thanks so much.
WIENER: All right. Thank you, Robin.
YOUNG: And we'll be back in one minute, HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.