New Howard President Retools Mission, Defends HBCUs
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michael Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Now a newsmaker conversation with the new president of Howard University, Sidney Ribeau. Last May, he became the 16th president of Howard University, the historically black university based in Washington, D.C., that's produced such luminaries as the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, opera diva Jessye Norman, the former governor of Virginia, L. Douglas Wilder.
President Ribeau, who came to Howard from Bowling Green State University, now leads an institution that has weathered the financial and accreditation storms that have battered other historically black colleges and universities better than most. And now Sidney Ribeau seeks to lead Howard into a new era.
Sidney Ribeau joins me here in our Washington, D.C., studios. President Ribeau, welcome. Congratulations on the new post, perhaps not so new now. Thank you for coming.
Mr. SIDNEY RIBEAU (Howard University): Well, thank you very much for the congratulations, and it's a real pleasure to be here.
MARTIN: Well thank you. At Howard University's opening convocation last September, just a couple months after you were named to the post, you told students a little bit about yourself. You described yourself as an African-American male in a country that continues to struggle with issues of race and class and really doesn't know what to do with me. How does that sense of yourself factor, or does that sense of yourself factor into why you wanted to take this job?
Mr. RIBEAU: I think it does factor into why I wanted to take the job, and I think it was one of the driving forces. I had been a president for 13 years at Bowling Green State University, as you mentioned, had a good career, a very successful career in the eyes of many. But I wasn't complete. I wasn't fulfilled because there were a number of students who really need an opportunity for higher education.
They need a chance to learn professions and careers but also learn about themselves, their identities, their cultures and what shaped them and what has led them on a road to realization. And many of those students were African-Americans.
So being an African-American male and an educator who passionately believes that education is a tool for empowerment. I am a different person now because of the opportunities I had educationally, and to share that with some of the best and the brightest faculty members, students and staff and alums at Howard University to me was like the epitome of what one could expect in a career.
MARTIN: But as a person who came from - you didn't go to an HBCU.
Mr. RIBEAU: No.
MARTIN: And you came from a leadership position in a majority-white public institution. There are those who would say, well, gee, you can serve those needs in these majority institutions. There are some who wonder why you still need HBCUs, and of course we call them historically black universities and colleges because they are now open to all, but they still primarily focus on African-American students. There are those who wonder, why do we still need them?
Mr. RIBEAU: You can look at it from an outcome perspective, and you can look at from the experience itself. Let me look at the outcomes. If you look right now at Ph.D. obtainment in the United States, Howard University grants more Ph.D.s by far than any other university in the country. Thus, we are serving a very important niche in that regard.
If you look at students that go on to earn Ph.D.s in science, technology, engineering or mathematics, the stem areas they call them, they earn a baccalaureate degree and go on to a stem - doctoral program, the majority come from Howard University.
If you look at the top 10 universities in that category, the top eight would be HBCUs. So still, you know, you look at the outcome results, where are we graduating the most talented professionals, are leading in that. But in the other side, the experiential side, is where you get the real important linkage.
It's because of the experiences at those institutions. I have been, most of my life, at majority institutions, but we didn't have the kind of opportunities for student growth and development. We didn't have the rituals. We didn't have the experiences to let students fill their own human potential and feel valued and feel like they are leaders.
Students at Howard come thinking they're leaders and leave knowing they can run the world. And that doesn't happen at all institutions.
MARTIN: But speaking of results, and I'm not here to make you the spokesperson for all HBCUs, a recent report, which we reported on on this program, published by the Associated Press, gave some disturbing numbers about HBCUs overall. It showed that only 45 percent of black students finish their degrees in four years, compared to 64 percent of white students.
Now Howard is bucking that trend. The graduation rate for black students matches the national rate for white students. But as a premier institution, the graduation rate is still lower than it is for black students at Ivy League institutions. So I wanted to ask you two questions. First of all, what is going on with these graduation rates? And even, what could be done to improve Howard's numbers in this area?
Mr. SIDNEY RIBEAU (16th President of Howard University): Probably two or three things impact graduation rates in general. First of all, the graduation rates for all students at all schools have moved from four years to five years, and they calculate it now on a five or six year basis because it's just taking students longer. Because I think students are enjoying...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. RIBEAU: ... college life to the extent they don't want to rush through. And that's at Yale, or Harvard, or Michigan, wherever you want to go. I think there are two or three things that happened at a number of schools. If you look at the graduation rates at HBCUs in general, Howard's is obviously, and Spellman are higher than most HBCUs.
But the graduation rates for at four-year, for four years, five years, or six years at any institution that has a larger percentage of social, economically, and challenged students is lower. So I think you have that. They don't have the resources. They have to work more hours. They have to stop out more. I get regularly on a personal level, in my office, emails from students, I'm finishing my junior year. I have a 3.7, I'm a business major, I'm going to have to stop because I don't have enough money. So I think the economics of it is very very important. Another factor I think there, that we have to consider is the pipeline issue. If you look at Detroit, for example, where you have a large percentage of African Americans...
MARTIN: Where you're from.
Mr. RIBEAU: My home town, so I track it closely. You're looking at probably about 30-35 percent of the students that enter high school even graduate. This is in the urban area. So they're not getting through the pipeline. How do those, at 35 percent, if you look at basic skills, quantitative reasoning, writing skills, the things that are predictors of success in college, you reduce that 30-35 percent probably by half. If you look at males, you even reduce the number a little bit more. So what you have in a pipeline is you don't have the academic preparation to allow students to be prepared immediately when they come to a college or a university, in many cases they're African American students.
And then the other factor, the third one that I think is the most important nowadays, they don't have the self-esteem and the intellectual confidence. And that's where HBCUs add value. It might take a little bit longer, but when they come out of a Bowie, or a Morgan, or a Howard, or a Morehouse not only will they have mastered the skills, but they'll have the confidence to be able to use those skills.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with Sidney Ribeau. He's the new President of Howard University, an historically black institution of higher learning in Washington, D.C. He has just become a 16th president of Howard University. He was appointed last year. And we're talking about his leadership, his philosophy, and whatever else is on his mind. One more point though, at the university's opening convocation.
Mr. RIBEAU: Uh huh.
MARTIN: When you talked about your goals for the institution, you got a standing ovation, a loud standing ovation when you said you wanted to focus on improving the university's orientation to customer service. Now first of all, were your surprised by that reaction?
Mr. RIBEAU: Yes, I was.
MARTIN: And I think I can say this, I think that it is one of the stereotypes, if you will, that many people will report this to you who went HBCUs, that there's just long registration lines, bad attitudes, lack of organization.
Mr. RIBEAU: Yes.
MARTIN: Why does that perception persist? Why, and is there a reality that, clearly you think there's a reality that needs to be addressed. Why is that?
Mr. RIBEAU: Well one of the first things that I did when I started in August was to actually walk around during that first week of classes, walk around to where they're providing services to financial aid, to the registrars office, places where they were issuing parking permits to see if there were lines and to see how, you know, students were being treated. And based on that, tried to formulate, you know, a kind of an approach to how do make sure that we are serving our students in a way that they're not spending an inordinate amount of time in lines rather than in the library? So, I think there are challenges.
One is infrastructure or technology. Many HBCUs haven't had the resources to make the investments for online web-base fill in the blank registration, parking, all the other services, you know, transcripts, that are now available electronically which really reduce the wait time in a line. So we need to make sure that we have the technological infrastructure that really allows us to do things with fewer people and do things efficiently. The second is, I think that universities in general, and I've been at five different universities, need to understand that, you know, that students are the reason that we are here. It's a kind of a hot spot with me, the cavalier way that we - kind of push students to the side for all of the other kinds of things that are important to us. And at HBCUs you find some of that also and...
MARTIN: Well I wanted to ask you about though because I think if you stop five people on the street who went to an HBCU, and in this area there will be many, they will all have a story for you.
Mr. RIBEAU: Uh huh.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: And so I want to, and so you mentioned that the issue is infrastructure...
Mr. RIBEAU: Uh huh.
MARTIN: …but I want to ask you if the issue is attitude…
Mr. RIBEAU: Yes.
MARTIN: …that some of these schools haven't yet gotten out of the view that they select rather than compete for these students.
Mr. RIBEAU: Hmm. I haven't thought of it that way. I think attitude has something to do with it, especially on the services side. It cuts both ways though. Because, I mean, you talk to students also about a faculty member, they'll tell you about a faculty member that stayed in her lab or his lab till 2:00 AM with them to make sure they learned the lesson or they got the experiment right. I think where I have been hearing most of the complaints has to do with the back-shop operations, admissions, records, financial aid, those kind of things that are business processes that need to be updated, that need to be refined, along with a Nordstrom kind of customer service attitude.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. RIBEAU: We are here for you, and to serve you, and to work on behalf of you. And I think for a long time, you know, it's something that you said that we've in the service area just taken students for granted. And we're no longer doing that at Howard University. And when I meet with other presidents of HBCUs they're working on similar kinds of initiatives. We're calling ours Students First. But it's just a way of thinking about, we are here to make sure that every student, this is the bottom line for me, is treated just like your son or daughter would be treated if you had your way.
MARTIN: One more thing I want to mention from the convocation, that you decided to take an exercise that you used to give your students when you were teaching high school and adult literacy, where you would give them the assignment of writing a composition about themselves. And this is your answer about who Sidney Ribeau is. This is what you said.
Mr. RIBEAU: If I was music I'd be jazz. If I was a color I'd be blue. If I was a number I'd be three. If I was a book in the Bible I'd be Psalms. And if I was a leader I'd be the personification of the people because a leader cannot separate him or herself from the people.
(Soundbite of clapping)
Mr. RIBEAU: That is Sidney Ribeau.
MARTIN: And you got a nice ovation for that too. Not as loud as the one for the customer service piece...
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: ... but a nice ovation for that too. What do you think you were trying to say? Is it that you know the college president, the university president, not just at HBCs but in general has become something of an imperial figure in many institutions?
Mr. RIBEAU: Yes.
MARTIN: In part, the job has become more complex. The pay has become large in some places. The responsibilities are vast and some of these figures are rather remote. They're not really viewed as the head teacher in charge but they're rather sort of grand figures.
Mr. RIBEAU: Mm-hmm. Yes.
MARTIN: What is, what was the message here?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. RIBEAU: I think it's that university presidents and faculty members, but presidents in particular, are people. And you do your work best when you humanize it. You do your work best when adapt your work to the reality of the situation in which you're in. I don't think that we can address the challenges of the year 2009, 2020, 2030 with a formulary approach to higher education administration in a role that restricts the president to past behaviors. We have to be able to hear students. We have to be able to listen to our alums, to our supporters if we're going to solve the problems of the future.
MARTIN: How will you know if you have succeeded in this job?
Mr. RIBEAU: My first indicator is the students. I spend a lot of time with students. If I see in their eyes and hear in their voices a passion, an intellectual excitement about what they're doing then I know that we're doing part of our job well. If I talk to alums and they're proud of how Howard prepared them and they want to give back to Howard to provide opportunities for those who are yet to come. I think to me the success is measured by not how we're rated, how well students score on the MCAT exam, but how they use what they know to make a difference in the world in which they live.
MARTIN: And finally, and I hope this won't be our last conversation. I hope it'll just be our first conversation and we will have many more. I can't let you go without asking you a little bit about President Obama. So much has been said and written so far and we're only a couple of months into this administration...
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: ... about what impact he'll have on the country and particularly given how we started our conversation, your description of yourself as an African-American man in a country that doesn't always know what to do with you. What impact do you think he is having on your institution, on your students, on the country?
Mr. RIBEAU: Both President Obama and Mrs. Obama have just a hypnotic, invigorating you know generative kind of impact on the entire campus, the sense of pride that they see in them. They've really zeroed in on the family and what they represent as a family. And I think this is something that's one of the major challenges, and maybe in another conversation we could talk about, being the African-American family and what it portends for the future of our people is critically, critically important. And they see in Mrs. Obama and President Obama and the children, like a symbol of two well-educated, proud black people that look like they like one another when they look at each other. And look like they care about one another, but still care about the greater good.
And students say this. They could've easily gone to Wall Street and made hundreds of millions but they've decided to serve. And I think that is such a powerful message. Howard has always had a tradition of service. Our students, our faculty members have been engaged in their communities here and throughout the world, but our students now are more passionate about service. One of the things I'll say really quickly, as part of our inauguration we had a Service Day.
Now our students would always do that, but they're doing it in larger numbers and with a greater passion. Our Alternative Spring Break, and our Engineers Without Borders, these programs have taken spring break time, when they could be on the beach somewhere, and gone to communities to work with on homelessness and work on bringing power to you know the communities that don't have it, and work on literacy. You know so…
MARTIN: And spend a lot of time in New Orleans working on the hurricane affected areas in New Orleans and Mississippi.
Mr. RIBEAU: Hurricane. Yes. Yes. And so I think that that message, you know, going full circle back to the president, I think, you know, that he represents you know, a new kind of leadership. Not an aloof, look what I have leadership, but a leadership that I'm intelligent, I care, and we can make a difference.
MARTIN: Sidney Ribeau is the 16th president of Howard University. He was kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C. studios. President Ribeau, thank you so much for joining us, and congratulations again.
Mr. RIBEAU: Well thank you so much for the conversation. I really enjoyed this.
MARTIN: You can find a link to more information about President Ribeau, his vision for Howard University, and the history of Howard University by logging on to our website. Go to NPR.org and click on TELL ME MORE.
Remember at TELL ME MORE the conversation never ends. Now we'd like to hear from you. Do you think that historically black colleges and universities still have a role to play in higher education? If you attended an HBCU, what did you find most valuable about that experience and how would you like to see HBCUs evolve in the future?
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And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.
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