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Howard University, here in Washington, D.C., has hit a rough patch. As one of the country's most prominent historically black schools, Howard is also one of the top undergraduate sources for African-American doctors, scientists and engineers. But faculty there recently voted no confidence in leaders of the school's board of trustees. That vote came just weeks after Howard's president announced a surprise early retirement and Moody's downgraded the university's credit rating. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang reports.
HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: Professor Gregory Jenkins has been tracking the news out of Howard.
GREGORY JENKINS: All of the negative news has not been good for our morale.
WANG: For about a decade, Jenkins has taught in the physics and astronomy department at the Washington, D.C. school. He first took serious notice of Howard's challenges in June. That's when an internal letter written by the vice chairwoman of the board of trustees was leaked to the press. Howard will not be here in three years, Renee Higginbotham-Brooks wrote, if we don't make some crucial decisions now.
JENKINS: We may have heard about things, but hearing it from the board of trustees was another level in terms of, wow, they have access to all of the relevant information and they know best what the true state of the university is.
WANG: According to the letter and a ratings report by Moody's Investors Service, the financial state of Howard University looks troubled. The school faced recent drops in enrollment partly due to federal loan policy changes. Then, there's the threat of cuts to the school's federal funding, which makes up more than a quarter of its operating budget. And there's Howard University Hospital, which Moody's described as a drag on university operations for its high expenses.
The leaders of Howard's board of trustees could not be reached for interviews but in a letter to the Howard community, Chairman Addison Barry Rand insisted that the school is academically, financially and operationally strong. Still, Gregory Jenkins says he and other faculty want more transparency.
JENKINS: We feel worn down at the end of the day because we do everything or as much as we can to make this place go. And yet, when we see what's going on above us, it doesn't seem like there's a light at the end of the tunnel.
WANG: Jenkins organized a protest against the board and the administration. He also led the faculty senate's vote of no confidence in the board's leadership. Howard University has begun taking steps to address some concerns, including a leadership transition.
DR. WAYNE FREDERICK: My name is Wayne Frederick. I'm the interim president here at Howard University.
WANG: Wayne Frederick took over last month after an unexpected end to Sidney Ribeau's five-year presidency. Frederick points to recent signs of progress at Howard - a recovery from recent dips in enrollment, a balanced budget for four consecutive years, and an endowment back to pre-recession levels. But he admits there has been extra attention on Howard as it continues what he calls an internal discussion about the school's future.
FREDERICK: But that scrutiny has also allowed us to do an introspection and to make sure that our vision is set. And I think we are comfortable with where we're heading.
(SOUNDBITE OF MARCHING BAND PLAYING)
WANG: At Howard University's recent homecoming, the school's future was on the mind of several students and alumni, including Jacoby DuBose, who graduated in 2006.
JACOBY DUBOSE: It's kind of heartbreaking because so many people look up to the school. And we're always looking for the school to be better and to excel more every year.
AMANDA DEWS: Something needs to change, and I think it's going to change soon. I just don't know what. I feel like the administration knows a lot of a stuff that they're not telling us.
WANG: That's sophomore Amanda Dews. What students and alumni at Howard could stand to hear more about is giving back to the school, says Marybeth Gasman of the University of Pennsylvania. She studies historically black colleges and universities.
MARYBETH GASMAN: If all of these Howard alumni who went to homecoming, even if they gave up, let's say, two or three coffees a week and gave that amount, their institution would have so much more funding with which to operate.
WANG: In the end, though, Gasman's betting on the storied Howard University to weather the storm. Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News, Washington.