MICHEL MARTIN, host:

As we talked about before on this program, these are tough economic times for many colleges and universities, whether they're public or private. Many have had to find innovative ways to try to maintain enrollment and quality while dealing with deep budget cuts. Some are cutting programs. Some are trying to sell prized properties. And while that may make financial sense, sometimes those decisions cut to the sense of an institution's sense of itself.

That's something that Howard University in Washington, D.C. is grappling with. Howard is not only one of the country's premiere historically black institutions - it's played a critical role in the country's culture and scholarship. It is the leading producer of African-American doctorates. It's the only historically black institution identified as a first-tier research university. And so the steps by Howard are closely watched by other institutions.

Now the leaders of Howard, which is 143 years old, are considering a plan to drop as much as 20 percent of its academic programs as part of a plan for academic renewal and fiscal accountability. We wanted to talk more about this, so we're pleased that Howard University president Sidney Ribeau is with us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Welcome, Mr. President, thank you so much for joining us.

Dr. SIDNEY RIBEAU (President, Howard University): Thank you for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: How did this project for academic renewal come about? Was this something that you were tasked with by the board when you first came in or was this an initiative of yours?

Dr. RIBEAU: I was actually tasked with it by the board when I first came in. The question they posed to me is, how do we know that we're the best at what we do? How do we know that our curriculum is relevant? How do we know that the teaching and learning that's taking place in the classroom is really preparing students for the world in which they will inherit?

As president, a very important issue for me was, how do we maintain quality and be able to fulfill our promise to our students, to our alumni, that Howard University is one of the best universities in the world?

MARTIN: Now, Howard currently offers close to 200 academic disciplines, and some of the proposals that have already leaked out (technical difficulties) philosophy department Howard's is the only free-standing philosophy department at an historically black college or university. It was once chaired by Alain Locke, who's the preeminent African-American Rhodes scholar. Another proposal was to consolidate programs in classics. It's the only HBC with a free-standing classics department.

And there are those who argue that you're emphasizing the so-called STEM field - science, technology, engineering and math - at the expense of humanities, but traditionally humanities, in which African-Americans have not had a strong presence, except at Howard. Is that a fair characterization of the dilemma before you?

Dr. RIBEAU: The recommendations for mergers, consolidations, discontinuation, are across the entire spectrum. There were - it's engineering college, communication college, business school, law school, humanities. So there wasn't one area that was singled out. The process was this. There was a faculty group of about 53 faculty members. And they established criteria for evaluation for all 171 programs. They looked at the tie to the legacy and the history of the institution. What happens to students when they graduate? Do they get jobs? The critical mass of students that are actually enrolled, is there demand? Do you have high quality faculty members?

Based on that criteria, they looked at every program. They did a series of benchmark studies looking at other programs that are like those programs at other peer institutions. And based upon that they came up with an assessment on the strengths or the weaknesses of the programs that exist today.

MARTIN: Well, what's the ultimate goal here? What's the metric that you're using to decide whether a program is effective or not?

Dr. RIBEAU: One is, like, how good are you based on comparisons to your peers? How active are your faculty members? How is the program assessed by students? But probably more important, though, is - how do these programs, disciplines, contribute to our emerging vision as we move forward?

MARTIN: Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich said that he had a metric for deciding, you know, government programs. And his metric was this. And he says that this applies to a lot of things. If you weren't already doing it, would you start?

Dr. RIBEAU: That's a great one. Really, that's a - it's very good. And so what we finally decided, at the end of the process, committee evaluated all the programs, they made recommendations, I made a series of recommendations, then we gave the campus community three months to look at the recommendations and say we agree with these, we don't agree with these, there's additional information that you need to look at.

Going to philosophy in particular, there's a lot of additional information that's been provided about philosophy, its integration into the curriculum and how it connected with other programs.

MARTIN: So are you giving me a hint here that even though the formal recommendations are to be presented to the board, that philosophy will live? Are you giving me some news?

Dr. RIBEAU: It has possibilities.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Well, but what about a program like the Bachelor's program in African studies. This is another department that does not graduate a large number of people.

Dr. RIBEAU: Yeah.

MARTIN: But there are those who would say that as a premier institution in the African diaspora, that this is something you have to have. How does an argument like that fit in to...

Dr. RIBEAU: Well, it does fit in. That's one of the things we've considered in this three months period of time. And you hit on a very important term: fit in. We can't afford to have freestanding programs where the political scientists don't talk to the sociologists, the Africanists don't talk to the Africana studies folks. The idea is to teach what's important, but teach it to people in a format that really allows us to balance the books financially and ensure quality.

MARTIN: This is the president of Howard University, Sidney Ribeau. We're talking about the challenges facing this leading historically black university. A group on academic renewal is set to present a report to the board later this week.

President Ribeau, I want to play you - we put out on Facebook that you were coming in and our producers reached out to some Howard alumni who had some questions for you. And I want to play this one from Houston resident John Mead(ph), who was class of 2004. Here it is.

Mr. JOHN MEAD: Do you think that a greater focus on STEM disciplines at the expensive of humanities, African studies, the arts and other programs, will impact Howard University's tradition as a think tank of community activism?

MARTIN: Now, that's an interesting question because one of the things it speaks to is Howard as a mission, not just an institution for higher learning and the thing is that all institutions presumably teach, like, math and engineering. But that that has a special place in the life of the African-American diaspora. And part of that is a tradition of teaching leaders for activism and to represent the community. Do you think that that's true?

Dr. RIBEAU: I think that's been part of the legacy of Howard and it will continue to be. We will be the specialist in the world on studies of the diaspora, from Africa, throughout the Americas, throughout the African-American community in the United States. It will include the social sciences, the humanities, the arts. We'll look at all those things from an integrative perspective from Africa throughout the Americas. So, indeed, what we're emphasizing in this series of recommendations is just that, it's strengthening that.

MARTIN: And what about music? I mean, there are a number of legendary people in the world of music who are associated with Howard. R&B artist Roberta Flack, gospel singer Richard Smallwood, Grammy winner, opera singer Jessye Norman, the list goes on. What's the future for this department?

Dr. RIBEAU: All the recommendations for the music department have been positive. The area that was called into question is music education, the training of music teachers. And I think that's part of the challenge, Michel, is to make sure that we get accurate information out about what's really going on.

MARTIN: Well, to that point, though, you know, often alumni are very intense, just their passion is, of course, appreciated because, you know, their loyalty and support of an institution is one of the things that helps it live. But have you found this to be the case? There have been a lot of rumors swirling around that really don't affect what it is that you're trying to accomplish.

Dr. RIBEAU: Yes. And that's why we've tried to get out and talk about this in the public domain. We've had conference calls, town hall meetings with alumni, you know, throughout the entire country trying to get out accurate information to people.

MARTIN: One of the other things that you're trying to do is increase Howard's international footprint, if I can call it that, and its role in world affairs. In fact, first lady Michelle Obama recently visited Howard to tout an initiative to encourage more students, not just students of color to study abroad, but clearly she went to Howard for a reason. And I assume in part, that is that she wants to encourage more students of color.

Dr. RIBEAU: Yes.

MARTIN: To also take advantage of these opportunities to study abroad and to increase opportunities. Here's a short clip from her.

Ms. MICHELLE OBAMA: The truth is with the high cost of college these days, many young people are struggling just to afford a regular semester of school, let alone...

(Soundbite of applause)

Ms. OBAMA: ...pay for the airline tickets and the living expenses to go halfway around the world. So we know that it's not enough for us to simply encourage more people to study abroad. We also need to make sure that they can actually afford it.

MARTIN: So, tell me about that. Why is it important, in your view?

Dr. RIBEAU: In the 1960s, Howard was the most international campus in the entire United States. One of the things I said when I was here back in 2008 is that one of the four major priorities we had was to internationalize the curriculum and give students an opportunity to study abroad, and the reason being that they learn about the world in a different way. They work with people in cultures that are going to be a part of the world in which they inhabit.

At the panel when Mrs. Obama was on, we had a high school student, African-American high school student who taught herself Mandarin and actually went and lived in Beijing for a while. We had a student, a young African-American woman who learned Mandarin online.

And they talked about their experiences and how it shaped the way they saw the world and how it encouraged them and gave them a sense of confidence and value that they didn't have previously. So it's critically important.

MARTIN: Speaking of matters closer to home, Howard is known as a fairly socially-conservative environment in contrast to, perhaps, many non-historically black institutions. One of the things that you are experimenting with is allowing, how can we put it, overnight guests in the dormitory.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Allowing, let's say. As opposed to letting them be there.

Dr. RIBEAU: Letting them do it, but act like there's...

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Without - how is that experiment going? There are those, I think, might argue that one of the reasons they seek out an HBCU environment is because it does provide a contrast to other campuses where there really are no rules.

Dr. RIBEAU: This is something that was brought forward by student leaders on campus. They wanted an environment - they were adults, they didn't need people watching every behavior to do the right thing. So we figured this was an opportunity to test them on that. Thus far, it's been very successful.

MARTIN: And how are the parents feeling about all this?

Dr. RIBEAU: Parents are responding positively to the fact that we try to put students into situations where they can make choices and be accountable for their decisions because if that doesn't work or something else doesn't work, there's a consequence and that's part of the educational experience.

MARTIN: Another delicate question, over the years, Howard has not exactly been renowned for its athletics.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: The Bison, your football team, have lost four of the past five homecoming games. And we know those teams are handpicked to try to give you a fair shot. And...

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: So, and you recently announced a renewed commitment to athletics. You know, with all this on your plate, academic, you know, overhaul on your plate and all these other things, why this area?

Dr. RIBEAU: Everything we do we should have excellence as a standard and I hold athletics to the same standard.

MARTIN: There are those who argue that just the energy and resources that many institutions pour into athletics are just not paying off.

Dr. RIBEAU: I would say - I've used this as an example: Duke University, Stanford University, Chapel Hill, excellent academic institutions, but also athletics. And I have real-time experience of watching enrollment applications double when we won the conference championship just because your name is a household word in a different way. It's not the only driver. Let's be clear. Academic achievement is number one. But you can have student athletes that are leaders on campus and they're also good athletes.

MARTIN: Well, we'll see you at homecoming next year and see whether those efforts are paying off. Finally, you're starting your third year now as leader of this institution. You did not come from an HBCU institution before you came to Howard. So, what's been your biggest surprise, biggest challenge since you've been in this position?

Dr. RIBEAU: Well, the biggest surprise hasn't really been a challenge. It's something that I'm very proud of. I think both my wife and I have found that the Howard faculty, the alumni, the students are the warmest, most supportive and challenging that you could possibly ever find. It's a wonderful environment if you believe in achievement, if you believe in hard work and if you believe in investing in the potential of our people.

I mean, it's just been, you know, the pride folks have in this institution, it makes you want to work 27 hours a day rather than just 22.

MARTIN: Sidney Ribeau is president of Howard University. He was kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C. studios. Once again, Mr. President, we do hope you'll come back. Thank you so much for joining us.

Dr. RIBEAU: Well, thank you for having me and if you invite me back I will surely be here.

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