The Washington Post Tried to Play Howard. And Ended Up Playing Itself
During the 2015-16 academic year, historically black colleges and universities grossed more than $7.7 billion in total revenues, with funds from private gifts and grants (outside of federal student financial aid) accounting for about $320 million of the big number.
Howard University, with $9.98 million in private gifts and grants received that year, represented about three percent of the total for all HBCUs. It is in range of close comparison to the largest public four-year HBCU, North Carolina A&T State University, which grossed about $12 million in non-capital gifts and grants during the same year.
Two HBCUs account for nearly seven percent of the grand total of non-operating gifts and contracts received by an entire sector of colleges and universities, and with roughly 100 other institutions contributing $299 million in the rising amount of private donations and gifts coming to HBCUs, both schools are well above the average $3 million other schools are contributing per campus.
That’s context — the kind of context that matters most when a news outlet like the Washington Post publishes a hit piece on Howard and its administration, by framing a narrative that the HU administration is failing on its mission in leading the nation’s flagship HBCU with finance, safety and faculty discontent as key indicators of perceived underperformance.
It’s also the kind of context that HBCU alums should be ripping apart in emails to the story’s author, Valerie Strauss, the education editor and the Post’s editorial board; the vortex of content creators and producers who should be averse to having incomplete narratives running beneath a motto of ‘Democracy Dies in Darkness,’ which apparently only applies to disillusioned white folks and their issues with Donald Trump as president, which by the way, isn’t working out so badly for black colleges.
So let’s walk our way through some broader higher education context missing from Strauss and the Post’s swing at Howard President Wayne Frederick and the HU administration.
Washington Post – In 2016, Standard & Poor’s Financial Services dropped Howard’s bond rating to the lowest it could be as investment grade and said its outlook was negative.
Higher Ed Context – Two years after that assessment, S&P said the outlook for the entire industry of higher education was ‘grim,’ a fact not mentioned in Strauss’ article.
Washington Post – In 2017, a former employee-benefit-plan manager was sentenced to a year and a day in prison for embezzling more than $420,000 from pension accounts. Then, on April 9 this year, Howard officials announced that six former employees had misappropriated $369,000 in financial aid from 2011 to 2016. School officials had known about the scandal for some time, but it was the first time the public learned of its scope.
Higher Ed Context – Seven employees accounted for just over $779,000 in embezzled or misappropriated funds from Howard, which is about $4 million less than was misappropriated by a former chancellor at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, and far less than the entire City University of New York’s spending issues.
Washington Post – Students had long complained that Howard officials did not adequately address sexual assault allegations by women. Late last year, a sixth woman joined a federal lawsuit accusing the university of failing to properly address allegations of sexual assault said to have been committed between 2014 and 2016 by male Howard students and employees.
Higher Ed Context – Let’s all say it together — Larry Nassar! And then let’s read Strauss’ brokerage of a guest column on why Michigan State deserved to survive one of the biggest scandals in American higher education history — only to, months later, essentially serve as ghostwriter for disgruntled faculty and execs hoping to generate support for Frederick’s firing.
Washington Post – Then in April, faculty members voted no-confidence in him — as well as in his provost and chief operating officer. (They had also voted no-confidence in 2017. That process was questioned on procedural grounds, but the vote was never overturned.)
Higher Ed Context – Faculty members voting no confidence? Yeah, that’s like a thing now at PWIs and HBCUs and every school in between.
Maybe Strauss and those who think everything wrong with Howard rests with its administration thought that painting a full canvas of Howard’s problems could fuel pressure for his firing. But that’s the thing about disgruntled campus stakeholders – they rarely step out of their own dissatisfaction to determine if their problems are unique, or if they underscore larger trends in higher education.
Howard has earned its spot as America’s flagship HBCU, but there’s no amount of enrolled students, no amount of philanthropy, no calendar of scandal-free days which could earn the Mecca immunity from financial trends, cultural movements and industrial challenges faced by nearly every college and university in the country. Every campus is going through what Howard is going through and the answer is not hiring a PR firm or revitalizing the entire campus with new facilities and systems.
We want Howard to be the antidote for black ignorance and white supremacy. Address those topics with the key stakeholders driving the narratives about HU shortcomings and all problems go away. Ignore those stakeholders and every administrative misstep, student grievance, and faculty complaint will be national news until Frederick’s presence on campus becomes an outright liability for the institution.
Howard is a special school with a certain capacity which won’t allow it to fail as easily as other campuses facing similar challenges. But criticizing the school or its leadership doesn’t indict the actors, it indicts the culture which Howard leads in deed and action. Every time someone tries to play Howard, they are actually playing the entire sector; because if there is a case to make against the HBCU with more programs, more rich alumni, more brand resonance and more industrial clout than any within its peer group, then there is truly a case for HBCUs at large to close up shop.
And that’s not really what the Washington Post wants. After all, negative Howard press earns far too many clicks and sells far too many papers to allow a little thing like latent white privilege and total ignorance of HBCU culture to stop one of its primary money makers.