New Directions at Howard

Article excerpt


SINCE it was rounded 125 years ago for the education of the newly emancipated slaves, historic Howard University has been in the forefront of almost every important change affecting the lives of Black Americans.

Decade after decade, from 1867 until today, men and women molded in the Howard fire--retired Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, Pulitzer Prizewinning author Toni Morrison, New York Mayor David Dinkins, entertainment stars Debbie Allen and Phylicia Rashad--have sown the seeds of growth for all Americans, Black and White.

Today, 125 years after four or five students enrolled in the first class of 1867, a new Howard--with 12,000 students and a $465 million budget--is once again grappling with the winds of change.

The process of renewal started two years ago, in April 1990, when Dr. Franklyn Jenffer became Howards 14th president, succeeding James E. Cheek, who retired after 20 years in office. Dr. Jenffer, the first Howard alumnus to assume the presidency, had been in office only three months when he appointed a blue-ribbon commission to advise him on the status and future of what he calls the nations "only truly comprehensive predominanfly Black university."

The 34-member commission of faculty and prominent civic and business leaders stunned the entire education community when it presented Dr. Jenifer with an uncommonly frank preliminary report: If Howard is to flourish in the 21st century, the commission told the new president, the school is to continue its legacy as "the capstone of Black higher education," then sweeping changes must be made.

Though he knew that much of the commissions report would be unpopular ("Whenever you make changes, you have to make tough choices"), Dr. Jenffer embraced many of its most serious recommendations: closing and consolidating schools; toughening admissions standards; and intensifying the universitys commitment to research in order to ensure that it is at the vanguard of study on major policy issues affecting urban society in general and Black America in particular.

"Because we are the only comprehensive Black university, we have the unique responsibility and charge of training the professional class... and also the academic and scholarly leadership of our people," Dr. Jenffer says, explaining why he launched the dramatic self-examination of his alma mater. "So the basic thrust behind 'Howard 2000' is staying essentially that Howard is very proud of its tradition of being the best of the historically Black universities. On the other hand, Howard knows very clearly that that is not enough and that our future goal must be to be the best of all universities. My challenge to Howard is that we become one of the preeminent universities in the country, regardless of race."

Armed with that challenge and vision, the new president took his proposals to the university's board of trustees, where he laid out "the quantum jumps" he sees Howard making in the next five years' and he detailed the areas in which he expects the school to achieve national distinction: science and technology ("Our national prominence is clearly in this area"), international relations ("especially as they relate to Africa, the Caribbean and South America") and health care ("particularly those areas affecting African-Americans").

But, says Dr. Jenifer, at the heart of the changes--at their very core--is the enhancement and enrichment of Howard's historic mission: attracting and training the best and brightest Black minds in the country.

"If we don't live up to that responsibility, who will... ?. he says, noting that Howard produces a disproportionately high number of the nation's Black Ph.D. s, and that more Black high school students have their SAT scores sent to Howard than to any other university. …