A Shift in Direction at Howard

The university's first truly sweeping academic review doubles down on graduate programs, but would gut more than two dozen departments.
November 5, 2010

The father of the Harlem Renaissance may well be turning in his grave.

Alain Locke, the first African American Rhodes Scholar and chief interpreter of the Harlem Renaissance, guided Howard University’s philosophy department for 32 years. It remains the only stand-alone philosophy program among the nation's historically black colleges. In a move that is distressing some faculty and alumni, the department that Locke once led could be stripped of its independent status and merged with classics and religion, if sweeping recommendations unveiled last month by Howard University's president, Sidney Ribeau, take effect.

Similar fates could befall 20 undergraduate programs -- or more than a third of those now offered -- including African studies and anthropology, after a yearlong review by a presidential commission on academic renewal. The commission, composed of 53 staff and faculty members, students, alumni, and external experts, was charged with doing a top-to-bottom review of Howard’s academic offerings. Members submitted a report to Ribeau, who released his own set of recommendations -- in some cases differing from the commission -- in October.

It was the first thorough review of the entire university's academic offerings in the institution’s history, and it was made urgent by twin imperatives. The first is current economic reality, in ways that are both common to other universities and unique to Howard, said Alvin Thornton, special adviser to Howard’s president, and leader of the review. “A combination of incremental growth in academic programs over the years and incremental budgeting to support them has led to circumstances in which many of the university’s diverse degree programs are under-funded,” Thornton wrote in an introduction to the committee’s recommendations. “The university supports too many academic programs across far too broad a spectrum.”

Sidney A. Ribeau, Howard's president and the driving force behind the academic renewal process

The other imperative driving the change is the historical moment in which Howard finds itself. Decades after the end of segregation, some at Howard wonder if it needs to offer the broad range of programs it did when black students couldn't enroll at many universities. “We think we don’t have to try to offer 171 programs,” Thornton told Inside Higher Ed, explaining why the university is streamlining its programs.

The changes were in keeping with a vision staked out by Ribeau, who assumed the presidency in 2008. Graduate studies and, in particular, doctoral research will grow more central to Howard’s mission, according to this new vision. Science, technology, engineering and mathematics will become areas of emphasis, as will the health sciences. “Howard is and wants to be an enhanced research university,” said Thornton.

Pushing Back

A choice to deploy resources in one place means, inevitably, that these resources will be drawn from somewhere else. Undergraduate programs would be the hardest-hit under the proposal released by Ribeau. Some faculty members still hope for changes in the plan. Comments on the recommendations are due to Ribeau on Dec. 1, and final determinations will be voted on by the university's trustees in January. If adopted, some changes would take place immediately, while others would be phased in gradually, said Thornton.

The recommendations stunned and saddened some faculty members. "We were just totally shocked that the decision was made, given the legacy of African studies here at Howard," said Mbye Cham, head of that department, which would see its program cut on the undergraduate level in favor of placing greater emphasis on graduate teaching and scholarship. “Our students are very, very concerned. We’re vigorously pushing back.”

Cham acknowledged that the undergraduate program had produced few graduates -- an average of two per year -- though he argued that these students produced high-quality work that had been internationally recognized. Even though the recommendations would shutter the undergraduate program and strengthen the graduate, Cham worried about the message such a shift would send to funders and to other universities. "Howard has always been looked at as a trailblazer," he said. "We don’t believe that Howard is running away from African studies, but I think the way that it is going to be interpreted is that there is a diminished commitment."

Others argued that cutting back on their programs would diminish Howard's unique perspective and history, and that tilting toward the STEM fields would prove misguided because they are not the university's traditional area of strength. Howard is the only historically black college that has had a classics program since its inception, said Rudolph Hock, associate professor and chair of the classics department, and it recently has produced a Rhodes Scholar. Despite its orientation to the ancient past, it holds applicability to other disciplines, including the STEM fields, he said: a student studying medicine, for example, would benefit from understanding Hippocrates. “We’re trying to remind people that this should be embraced and supported -- and even more supported,” said Hock. “We’re not rolling over and playing dead.”

Some cited the way their disciplines inform Howard's mission. "The largest and most general problem that philosophy solves is self-knowledge," said Charles Verharen, professor of philosophy. Such an endeavor carries a special meaning at Howard, Verharen argued, because students there are taught to study not only canonical Western philosophy, but also the intellectual traditions of Africa. "Coming to self-knowledge for African Americans has been distorted for 500 years using the tools of science, economics and politics," said Verharen.

Still other scholars worried about the wider ripple effects a cut to programs at Howard would create. “The consequences of a closure will not only negatively impact students and faculty at our institution, but it will also have a bearing on the discipline of anthropology overall, the African American community, and other peoples of African descent," Flordeliz T. Bugarin, Eleanor King, Mark Mack and Arvilla Payne-Jackson, who are members of Howard's combined sociology and anthropology department, wrote in in this month's issue of Anthropology News. Closing the undergraduate major would hamper the field's recruitment of minority students, the professors argued. It also would imperil nine research projects now under way, from work at New York City's African burial ground to research at James Island, a locus of the Gambian slave trade.

‘The Uniqueness of Howard’

Program reviews are far from rare, especially as the sagging national economy straps college budgets and forces institutions to make tough choices. These reviews tend to be imbued with the ethos of the marketplace, often measuring a discipline's relevance by the number of its graduates, among other indicators. They often pit “practical” education against the classical liberal arts. And many in the liberal arts feel their traditions are not being valued as they should.

A similar worry has been expressed at Howard. "Humanities is not the 'fat' to be trimmed for [the] sake of an education favored by Washington," Alicia M. Bell, a 2002 graduate who double-majored in biology and classics, wrote recently in The Hilltop, Howard's student newspaper. "Our nation needs scientists and engineers, but more than ever, we also need highly trained scholars of the humanities to innovatively use critical thinking skills -- in the tradition of Du Bois -- to help provide the leadership necessary to address the most pressing challenges of our day."

A closer look at the departments singled out for cutting, merging and curtailment, however, reveals that this tension has played out less predictably at Howard: practical undergraduate fields such as hospitality management and radiation therapy were more likely to be axed than their liberal arts counterparts. Engineering fields on the master's level also face closing, though Errol C. Noel, chair of the civil engineering department, expressed confidence that his program would endure. "We, in Civil Engineering, know that we have substantial evidence to demonstrate sustained quality productivity for over a decade," Noel wrote in an e-mail, though he also supported the larger premise of the review. "I believe that the university is on the right track in reviewing programs with the aim of redefining what HU must be. Unfortunately, some programs will have to be eliminated, restructured [and] merged."

In fact, few faculty members at Howard -- including those whose departments would feel the brunt of the proposed changes -- disputed the need to rigorously review the university's academic offerings and make changes. Howard's historical role means that such reviews are thorny, said Verharen.

“What makes Howard’s case different is the uniqueness of Howard,” he said, citing the institution’s focus on disenfranchised and marginalized students since its charter was granted in 1867. “What we do at Howard is solve problems that other institutions may not have the interest in solving and the cultural background that would provide the most adequate solution,” he continued. “Any changes to the academic program that don’t preserve what is unique about Howard are problematic.”

Advocates for the set of changes that have been recommended stress that they are equally mindful of this obligation to Howard's role. Thornton pointed out that the cuts to undergraduate courses need to be seen in their larger context. While he acknowledged that Ribeau opted to cut some programs the commission wanted to strengthen and to bolster others that the commission wanted to scuttle, Thornton said the president sided with the commission 80 percent of the time. More important, Ribeau affirmed the two most important facets of the recommendations, as he saw them: strengthening Howard's emphasis on graduate education and altering how undergraduate courses are delivered. The changes on the undergraduate level include starting a new center for academic excellence and adopting a more interdisciplinary focus. They are meant to improve students' core skills: writing clearly and grammatically, completing applied mathematics courses, and developing critical thinking skills. "That, to me, is the important thing," said Thornton, of the two facets of the recommendations. "Those are not small changes."

How to Measure the Unmeasurable?

In addition to debate over specific departments facing closure, arguments also have surfaced over process and shared vision. Several faculty members questioned how some of the six criteria on which their programs were judged -- tie to mission, academic quality, research, academic centrality and necessity, student enrollment, and sustainability -- can be defined, much less evaluated.

"The six criteria seem quite reasonable as components of the evaluation process," wrote Lorenzo Morris, professor of political science, in the faculty publication, Senate Communicator. " 'Academic quality,' for example, is fundamental. Unfortunately, however, that does not make it empirical or measurable, much less quantifiable."

Thornton agreed that these categories cannot be measured precisely -- and said they were never meant to be. "There was never any attempt to be completely empirical about this," he said. "The data was never said to be determinative or infallible." While commission members drew upon data, this information did not form the entire basis for their recommendations, he said. Ribeau's larger vision mattered more. "Some programs that had very good data were not necessarily viewed as being in the strategic direction in which Howard wanted to go," said Thornton.

Others criticized the composition of the commission, which was split into smaller groups and reviewed individual programs. Hock, of the classics department, noted that reviewers were not versed in his discipline specifically, or in the humanities more generally. "The composition of the commission seemed to be absurd," he said. "It’s as if they had me, a classicist, go to evaluate the pharmacy department. What do I know about that?"

Thornton said the commission's determinations were based on several factors: self-assessments, survey responses, performance data, accreditation reports, and prior program evaluations, though he also has acknowledged that there had been disagreement with the conclusions the commission reached.

He also rejected the notion that Howard's faculty had not been sufficiently and formally involved in the review process, which was a charge leveled by Verharen. The commission was composed primarily of faculty members, he said, and the vetting and review period, which is intended to solicit faculty feedback, is under way. "Howard's faculty involvement in the academic process is at an unprecedented level by Howard and comparable university standards," he wrote in an e-mail. "President Ribeau placed a high priority on this dimension of the academic renewal process."

Despite the contentious subject matter of the debate and the current set of recommendations, Ribeau has earned high marks for communication, transparency (a website has been documenting the commission's work), and, ultimately, doing what needed to be done. He assumed the presidency at Howard after serving in the same position at Bowling Green State University, where he was lauded as “charismatic, funny, accessible and a model of collaboration, commitment and cooperation.”

Some Howard faculty voiced similar impressions. "It's high time that this be done," said Verharen, adding that Ribeau had taken vital steps to reform the administration; for example, the president made the university's budget more public. "He’s done a remarkable job with trying to change the administrative structure of Howard."


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