A Leaner Howard U.

University moves to eliminate or change 40% of its degree programs so that science can receive more emphasis. Philosophy survives; classics does not.
February 1, 2011

Howard University's board of trustees voted Saturday to shutter or consolidate 71 of its 171 undergraduate, graduate and professional programs. While supporters of the moves say they will leave the institution stronger and better able to invest in research and doctoral programs, critics contend they fly in the face of some of the institution's most storied academic legacies.

"We're excited about what we've done," said Alvin Thornton, special adviser to Howard’s president, Sidney A. Ribeau, and leader of the review, which he said left the institution "more strategically focused" as a research-oriented historically black college. The review leading up to the trustees' unanimous vote on the "academic renewal" plan spanned three years. This process included preparation for the reaffirmation of accreditation by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, and a review of Howard's degree programs by the Presidential Commission on Academic Renewal, which preceded Ribeau's first set of recommendations. The review process also included town meetings and a series of appeals in which faculty members and their advocates argued in person with the provost and in written proposals for the future of their programs.

"We no longer have to be everything to everyone," Ribeau said in a statement, reflecting the view that Howard's place in higher education has changed because it no longer needs to offer the broad range of programs it did when segregation prevented black students from enrolling at many universities. “We have identified specific areas of emphasis and we plan to be leaders in those areas.”

Of those areas of emphasis, two consistently emerged as perhaps the most notable, according to several faculty members and administrators: the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics; and Africana and diaspora studies. The remaining four were to revise Howard's model for undergraduate education and increase interdisciplinary programs; increase the commitment to internationalism and global studies; streamline graduate and professional offerings in favor of research; and enhance humanities, communication, urban education, business, and performing and visual arts programs.

Howard is also adopting a new core curriculum with a more consistent freshman courseload, and considering beginning a "black male initiative" and honors program. Also new will be a requirement that will reduce from 127 to 120 the number of credits needed to graduate. These and other moves are designed to help push Howard's four-year graduation rate from 49 percent to a percentage in the 80s -- all while continuing to serve Howard's traditional base of students, said Thornton. "We want to show people how it's done with a certain demographic," he said.

Improving the quality of Howard's doctoral program will also take some effort. An overview of the pending changes noted that the university's doctoral classes tend to comprise five students, on average, and that a 2010 survey conducted by the National Research Council showed "considerable room for improvement" in Howard's Ph.D. programs. "Few performed strongly in comparison with all programs in their fields," the overview read, "and none operated at a level of national distinction."

Thornton described as "upbeat" and "very positive" the mood on the campus on Monday, as news of the changes spread. But that mood was far from universal, particularly in disciplines that saw their majors eliminated. "We’ve been relegated to second- or third-class citizenship," said Rudolph Hock, associate professor and chair of the classics department, a post once held by Frank Snowden Jr., whose scholarship on the status and images of black people in antiquity earned him the National Humanities Medal in 2003, four years before his death. Howard has been the only historically black college to have a classics department since the institution's inception, he said. "We've been marginalized considerably," Hock continued. "We’re eunuchs."

Hock was disappointed that four options that he and his colleagues suggested for re-engineering the discipline had failed. The proposed changes included reshaping classics into either an ancient Mediterranean studies program; classics and European studies; a pre-professional studies curriculum with Latin at its core; or classics and religion. Instead of any of these, classics will now be in a concentration that goes by the same name, but is part of an interdisciplinary humanities cluster and likely won't grant degrees.

The only silver lining, in Hock's view, is that current majors will be able to finish their degrees. The department's eight faculty members help to graduate seven majors each year; recently, one was a Rhodes Scholar. Hock also worried about the impact of the decision on his colleagues. "There’s deep depression," he said, adding that he is glad he is closer to retirement than to the beginning of his career. "The future of the classics here is beyond dismal."

While many programs -- 22 undergraduate, 11 graduate and 38 graduate professional programs -- were marked for closure or reconfiguration, a few that faced that fate late last year escaped the chopping block. The lucky programs include African Studies and a dance concentration within the theater department.

"I’m extremely excited," said Denise Saunders Thompson, an instructor who helped lead the fight to save the dance concentration. She credited a push from students, including a scholarly forum, as well as a booklet she and others produced on the history of the program and position statements from such luminaries as Debbie Allen, the actress and choreographer who is an alumna, with swaying the administration and trustees. But, noting that the stay of the department's closure is no guarantee of future prosperity, she said she and her colleagues would need to find new ways to collaborate, both within and outside the university. "We just have to step up our game now," she said.

Mbye Cham, an associate professor and chair of the African Studies department, said he is "elated" by the weekend's news, and added that the university's stated focus on Africana and diaspora studies made it easier to draw a direct connection with his program -- even though it graduates only about two students each year. "We just argued in terms of the role that Howard has played in institutionalizing African Studies," he said, noting that Howard has consistently supported the discipline for years. "It would be unfortunate to retreat from that legacy."

Though the bachelor's degree in philosophy was slated for elimination in earlier reviews, it avoided that fate in the final vote. Charles Verharen, professor of philosophy and director of graduate studies in the discipline, was far from happy, however. He lamented the loss of the master's program, noting that several graduates had gone on to top-ranked doctoral programs elsewhere and gotten tenure-track jobs. He said that the moves will result in a faculty that is more oriented to introductory-level courses and less equipped with graduate assistant help to take on cutting-edge research. Verharen also worried about the potential melding of philosophy with religious studies, because, he said, their methodologies are different.

The programmatic shifts presage looming changes in staffing. Three-quarters of Howard's tenured faculty members are eligible to retire, with their age plus years of service equaling or exceeding 70. Thornton said that the university was committed to hiring tenure-track faculty to replace those who retire, though they obviously will be in different disciplines, with different expectations placed on them for tenure. Any savings resulting from hiring more junior faculty will be reinvested in the university, not used to cover budget deficits, he said.

He also stressed that, even though STEM fields represented a major focus for Howard in the future, it would not abandon a commitment to liberal education, adding that Howard sees no discrepancy between STEM fields and the humanities. "Any suggestion that you can have an excellent STEM-focused university and not have a high quality liberal arts and humanities concept is folly," he said, citing John Slaughter, president emeritus of the University of Maryland at College Park and a member of the commission that analyzed and recommended changes at Howard. "You can’t have it."


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