Howard U in Flux: An HBCU Reinvents Itself

Drop African studies and cut the philosophy program? These are among the decisions the university is faced with in order to stay competitive.

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By Daniel de Vise

Howard University is concluding the broadest academic review in its 143-year history, hoping to shed weak programs and bolster strong ones in order to compete in the increasingly fierce contest for America's top black scholars.

Howard offers 171 academic programs, an uncommonly large number for a university of 10,500 students. The range is a product of the institution's historic role as the epicenter of African-American scholarship. But university leaders believe that the sheer number of offerings has become unwieldy, draining resources better spent pursuing excellence in core areas.

Howard will still turn out many of the nation's African-American doctors and dentists, psychologists and engineers. But the university is considering cutting its undergraduate programs in philosophy, anthropology, the classics and even African studies -- a specialty with symbolic importance to many in the Howard community. The school is keeping African-American studies.

Altogether, Howard President Sidney Ribeau has proposed closing or reducing 20 undergraduate degree programs and at least that many graduate programs, based on recommendations forwarded by a Presidential Commission on Academic Renewal after a yearlong review.

"You can't do everything at once," said Ribeau, who became the university's president in 2008.

Similar exercises in "academic renewal," driven by market forces and dwindling state funds, have happened at other colleges. But few have been so closely watched.

"The direction Howard goes in, that's the direction the African-American community and the Diaspora will go in. There's a lot of weight on it," said Brandon Harris, 21, a junior who is president of Howard's student association.

The tough choices at Howard reflect changing times for the nation's 105 historically black colleges and universities. Black colleges once held a monopoly on black students. Today HBCUs compete with everyone else for the college-bound African American.

Top-tier schools -- including Howard, Hampton University, and Spelman and Morehouse colleges -- vie with Harvard and Princeton for top black students and faculty. "Howard has positioned itself as a college that wants to attract the best and the brightest," said Michael Lomax, CEO of the United Negro College Fund. "There is a lot of competition for those students."