Can common fate and collective action displace discordance to stabilize Howard University?

Originally published June 17, 2013

In Vice Chair Renee Higginbotham-Brooks’ April 24, 2013 letter to the Howard University Board of Trustees, she advised that the University is essentially in financial trouble and failure to act collectively will mean the demise of the institution within three years.

Howard University’s troubles detailed in Higginbotham-Brooks’ letter include:

  • The combination of fewer students who can arrange financial aid, coupled with high school counselors who are steering students to less expensive state and junior colleges, has resulted in lower enrollment and this trend is expected to continue.
  • Howard’s Federal appropriation is expected to be decreased because of sequestration and the rationale for the University’s existence is expected to be challenged since African American students can attend any college or university today.
  • The Hospital has become a serious drain on the budget of the University and we need to either sell it or get the D.C. government to properly reimburse us for the care provided to its citizens.
  • We lack an infrastructure for fundraising to replace decreasing tuition revenue and shrinking Federal dollars, and we lack access to the larger philanthropic community.
  • We have too many employees on our payroll (approximately 5,000 employees to serve less than 10,000 students)

Higginbotham-Brooks also raises issues concerning a lack of common fate and collective action in governance.  She cites concerns about direction and leadership at Howard and failure of the Board to address these issues.

Board Chair, Addison Barry Rand in a statement responded, indicating that the institution and board are working “tirelessly” and the issues are being addressed, adding the institution “remains competitive and is continuing to grow (The Washington Post).”  Faculty member, Richard Wright, who is also on the Board and a faculty member as well, indicated faculty are concerned about the University’s financial situation, but added he did not “…see anything that’s going to shut us down in a few years (The Washington Post).”

One implication noted by Higginbotham-Brooks is the possible shuttering of Howard University within three years.  The financial strain on Howard due to decreased federal dollars, diminished capacity to fund raise and resource demand of its hospital on the University budget, coupled with decreased enrollment, attributed to less expensive alternatives for black students in the form of state and community colleges, has the potential, according to the Vice Chair, to make it difficult for Howard to justify its continued existence.

An additional implication I raise is the elimination of preferences for blacks in education, which serves as a gateway to middle and upper class status.  According to the U.S. Department of Education, historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) “… principal mission was, and is, the education of black Americans … (”  As such, Howard University plays an important role in educating and graduating black undergraduates as well as black doctors, lawyers, architects, PhD and other professionals.  If Higginbotham-Brooks’ prediction bears out, this could have the potential to erode black access to educational opportunities that serve as the first step to professions in which blacks are underrepresented.

Historically, when black’s attitudes about their reality have been in alignment relative to their real socioeconomic outcomes, black common fate and collective action served to rally blacks to call attention to their situation and work collectively to improve it.  When black’s attitudes about their reality have been out of alignment relative to their real socioeconomic outcomes, there is “sunny appraisal” and loss of gains.

Hopefully, common fate and collective action can coalesce to displace discordance and put Howard University on stable ground.

© 2013 Lessie Branch. All rights reserved.

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