If you are black, you likely know what it means to “finesse” something:
Finesse (verb): To acquire smoothly and without force. The art of persuasion or trickery, in which an individual is able to get something he or she wants with cunning and prowess.
If you are black, it is also statistically unlikely that you attended Howard University. Although its enrollment of 10,002 is large for a historically black college or university, it is dwarfed in size by hundreds of larger, predominantly white universities. But its list of alumni boasts some of the most notable African Americans in black history and culture, including senators (Kamala Harris), artists (dancer Debbie Allen, writer Zora Neale Hurston), intellectuals (Ta-Nehisi Coates) and actors (Ossie Davis, Taraji P. Henson).
Douglas Wilder, the first black governor of a state, attended Howard University. Thurgood Marshall, the first black Supreme Court justice, obtained his law degree from Howard. Stokely Carmichael coined the term “Black Power” at the Washington, D.C., school. The first black Rhodes scholar (Alain Locke), the first black Nobel Peace Prize winner (Ralph Bunche), the first black recipient of the Nobel Prize in literature (Toni Morrison), and the person responsible for both the “Diddy dance” and the popularity of white parties (Sean “P. Diddy” Combs) all attended Howard University.
The largest black fraternities were founded at Howard, including Omega Psi Phi and Phi Beta Sigma. Alpha Kappa Alpha and Delta Sigma Theta sororities were founded there. The Howard Homecoming is on the national must-do list of black celebrations. Aside from Harvard University, the University of Alabama football team and wherever people go to become vegans, perhaps no institution in America engenders more unsolicited boasting than Howard University.
If you are black, Howard University is home.
The heralded school has long been the symbolic standard-bearer for historically black institutions of higher learning. And as at many HBCUs (except for maybe Spelman because ... it’s Spelman), turmoil has landed at Howard. A recent scandal has ricocheted through the 151-year-old university.
Exacerbated by social media and inflamed by black America’s affinity for the beloved institution, the tumult is indicative of a quiet turbulence happening at black colleges across the country. But this is not supposed to happen at Howard.
On Wednesday, someone posted an essay on the user-generated content site Medium. The post detailed allegations of financial fraud and coverup that extended into the highest levels of Howard’s administration, including financial aid administrators, students and university President Wayne A.I. Frederick.
The Medium post alleged that, between 2013 and 2017, people in Howard’s financial aid office embezzled nearly $1 million from the university through a scheme that involved fake scholarships, phony university grants and—in some cases—funds created out of thin air. Here is how the scam worked, according to the whistleblower and sources on Howard’s staff and in its administration who spoke to The Root on the condition of anonymity:
Some employees at Howard are eligible for free or reduced tuition. When these employees register for classes, they are entered into the school’s computer system as regular students of the university. This small quirk in Howard’s process makes them eligible for financial aid like any other students.
Beginning in 2013, some of Howard’s employees allegedly began awarding themselves “university need-based grants” intended for low-income students. Because the employees’ tuition was discounted or—in some cases—free, they would receive refunds for the amount of the overages. Despite the fact that Howard’s current tuition is $24,122, the pocketed overage checks sometimes amounted to tens of thousands of dollars more, according to a person with knowledge of the details.
For instance, The Root was provided with a screenshot of Howard’s financial aid data for Associate Director of Financial Aid Brian Johnson. During the 2014-2015 school year, Johnson was registered as a full-time student and received a $20,800 tuition remission, meaning that his tuition was essentially free.
Yet Johnson was somehow awarded money from the school’s need-based grant fund. According to our sources, the school’s internal financial aid literature specifically states that these grants are “intended for low-income students who are in desperate need of assistance and in danger of having their education disrupted by their inability to pay,” and usually average around $3,000 per semester.
On its pay-grade schedule, Howard University designated the associate director of financial aid’s salary as HU-11 (pdf), meaning that the position paid between $34,627 and $69,253 in 2015 (pdf). But Johnson, a full-time employee who was not charged a cent for tuition, received more than $68,000 in free money, nearly equaling his highest potential salary.
According to the Medium post, Tyrone Hankerson Jr., an undergraduate student at Howard, benefited even more:
Between 2014 and 2017, another financial aid student-employee, Tyrone Hankerson, was repeatedly awarded a $65,000 “University Need Based Grant.” In 2014, Hankerson was awarded another $22,683 scholarship, labeled as a Mock Trial Scholarship. Sources who have been involved with the mock trial, including past leadership, say the team has never awarded a scholarship of that amount and wouldn’t even have had the budget to accommodate a scholarship of that amount.
Also during that aid year, Hankerson received a $6,000 “study abroad scholarship,” another $5,645 university grant, a $21,000 “Trustee scholarship” and multiple other atypical financial aid awards totaling $429,612 over 4 years.
The post began circulating on social media among alumni, students and people associated with Howard. After it reached national headlines, the allegations were quickly deleted from Medium. (The Root obtained an archived copy and independently confirmed many of the allegations.)
When the story exploded, The Root contacted Howard University’s office of public relations regarding this matter. President Frederick responded with a statement explaining that he initiated a review of Howard’s office of financial aid in 2015. In December 2016, according to Frederick’s statement, he was alerted to misappropriated funds, to which he alerted HU’s board of trustees and began an internal investigation. His statement went on to say:
The University immediately engaged an outside auditor (RSM) to determine whether there had been any misappropriation of Howard University funds by staff in the Office of Financial Aid or elsewhere, and if so, the magnitude of that misappropriation. The auditors completed their investigation and reported the results to me in May 2017.
The investigation found that from 2007 to 2016, University grants were given to some University employees who also received tuition remission. The audit revealed that the combination of University grants and tuition remission exceeded the total cost of attendance. As a result, some individuals received inappropriate refunds. Note that University grants are institutional funds used to help support students with student charges. They are not federal funds or donor directed funds.
In July 2017, I self-reported this issue to the Department of Education and assured them we would provide regular updates on the investigation.
An investigation of individual employee actions was completed in September 2017 and as a result, six employees have been fired for gross misconduct and neglect of duties. We will refer this matter for criminal prosecution, as appropriate.
Third Coast Higher Education, another outside expert, was also brought in specifically to determine if any misappropriation of federal funds occurred. At this point, Third Coast found no misappropriation of federal funds related to this issue.
Later that day, Hankerson, the student at the center of the scandal, issued a statement to ABC explaining that he had done nothing wrong. Hankerson alleged that the details have been taken out of context and “when all is fully-told, the truth will prevail,” he “will be fully vindicated.”
Neither Hankerson nor Johnson responded to The Root’s requests for interviews, while Howard’s office of public relations offered to answer The Root’s follow-up questions. On Wednesday afternoon, we emailed a list of nine questions to the university’s administration:
- Was the extent of the misappropriated funds limited to the office of financial aid and to university grants and tuition remissions?
- Was the extent of the misappropriated funds limited to the six fired employees?
- Was the outside auditor’s report made available to the board of trustees, faculty or students?
- What was the U.S. Department of Education’s response to the self-reporting?
- Did the university notify any law enforcement agency on this matter?
- If the funds were limited to university grants and tuition remissions, was that money ever reimbursed to the school?
- Where does funding from university grants and tuition remissions come from? The president explained that they are “institutional funds,” but from whom does the institution receive those funds?
- How did the school make up for the lost money?
- Does the university’s administration consider this matter closed?
We have not received an answer.
Central to this scandal is Frederick’s assertion that no federal or donor funds were involved in this alleged embezzlement. The Root spoke to two current HBCU administrators, one former administrator and a federal education official who all separately acknowledged that it is unlikely that federal funds were not involved.
Howard University receives one of the largest allotments of federal funding of any HBCU. One official explained that Howard’s recurring $200 million-plus annual federal allowance essentially means that it has one of the largest endowments among American colleges—black or white.
Is this why Howard University asserts that federal funds were not affected? Is this why the college has not engaged law enforcement officials in arresting the alleged embezzlers?
Even stranger is the fact that some of the people involved, including Hankerson, appear to still be enrolled at the university. Is Frederick trying to avoid a federal investigation that could be triggered by this incident?
No one has the answers. Longtime faculty members and student leaders who spoke to The Root have not seen the results of the RSM audit; nor could we obtain a copy from the university.
This story is not unique to Howard; these kinds of scandals are quietly bubbling beneath the surface at many institutions of higher learning, regardless of whether the schools are historically black or predominantly white. But because this is happening at Howard, it is a bigger scandal because people want to know.
Because if you are black, Howard is your home, too.