Howard University Considering Program Cuts

Howard University, one of the nation's premier black universities, is considering major changes in its curriculum that would eliminate some longstanding majors — German, African Studies — to focus on core areas. This move has made some students and faculty unhappy.

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One of the nation's premier Historically Black Universities is revamping its academic offerings. Howard University plans to reduce the number of majors and graduate programs. Among those on the chopping block: classics and African studies.

An official decision is expected any day now, and some students and faculty aren't happy.

NPR's Alex Kellogg reports.

ALEX KELLOGG: Howard University has offered German classes since 1875.

Unidentified Woman #1: (Foreign language spoken)

KELLOGG: The university has had a German major since the 1940s. That's longer than some majority white schools. But that may soon change, and for good reason, university leaders say. After all, Howard has just one German major left.

EBONY DENISE MINGO: My name is Ebony Denise Mingo. I am a sophomore, and I'm from Lexington, South Carolina. And I'm 19 years old.

KELLOGG: Mingo spoke as she was rushing across Howard's campus, here in the nation's capital, to her next class.

DENISE MINGO: I think it's a bad idea for them to cut the language, but they need to do more within Howard to spike the interests of the students to want to study German.

KELLOGG: She says she fell in love with Germany when she traveled there as a kid. She's now in German 4.

NORRIS: the classics and philosophy.

Students will still be able to take courses such as African-American Philosophy and Slavery in the Ancient World, but that doesn't satisfy the university's critics. They say a premier black college like Howard plays a special role. For example, Howard has one of the only freestanding philosophy departments at a Historically Black College. So critics argue a cut there would be a big loss.

University president Sidney Ribeau disagrees.

SIDNEY RIBEAU: Part of this is also carving out territory for Howard University, where we are the best of kind in certain areas - just like if you go to University of Michigan or you go to Harvard or if you go to Columbia or if you go to Stanford.

KELLOGG: Howard's famous alums include Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, actor Ossie Davis and black radical Stokely Carmichael.

The university was founded just after the end of the Civil War. It started as a seminary for African-American clergymen. Today, it has 171 academic majors. That's a huge number for a university with only around 10,500 students.

The plan is to cut 20 undergraduate degree programs and at least as many graduate programs.

RIBEAU: And it will also allow us to enhance the overall quality of our academic programs so that we're sure that we're nationally competitive.

KELLOGG: Howard's board of trustees is expected to make a final decision on the president's recommendations this weekend.

The big lightning rod - cutting the African studies major. Critics say that would send the wrong message. In fact, the classes remain popular, even if the major isn't. There's just a half dozen students pursuing African studies right now.

Professor Mbye Cham is the chair of the department. He points out that Howard pioneered the idea that such disciplines are vital.

MBYE CHAM: I don't think Howard can afford to retreat totally from that legacy. I guess the question is how do you move forward?

KELLOGG: President Ribeau says Howard's future is in the areas of growing interest. The university plans to offer more classes in popular languages - Swahili and Chinese, for example.

Unidentified Woman #2: (Foreign language spoken)

OLIVIA FORD: My name is Olivia Ford. I am 18 years old. I am from Chicago, Illinois, and I am a freshman at Howard University.

KELLOGG: Ford was surprised when she arrived last fall to find Howard didn't have a Chinese major. She's happy they'll likely have one before she graduates.

FORD: And I think it's really good that they're making changes, kind of, to adapt to future student interests.

KELLOGG: Howard graduates more black doctors, engineers and Ph.D.s than virtually any other institution of higher learning in the country, even though just 10 percent of black students currently attend a Historically Black College.

But like many universities, Howard's endowment has shrunk in recent years. While President Ribeau insists these changes aren't driven by finances, he says that to remain competitive, Howard must shift resources to where they are needed most.

Alex Kellogg, NPR News, Washington.

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