By most accounts, Dr. Sidney A. Ribeau was a seasoned college president who was well-liked by both students and faculty at Howard University.
But shortly after he arrived on campus in 2008, following a 13-year stint at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, he was quickly viewed as an outsider with some wondering if his presidency even had a fighting chance.
Unlike his most immediate predecessor, H. Patrick Swygert and others who came before him, Ribeau was not an alumnus of the historically Black university and wasn’t steeped in the school’s culture. His management style, according to faculty, was that of a consensus-seeker who called for more transparency in the day-to-day operations of the 146-year-old school. He wasn’t top-down in his approach.
But at a university that prides itself on tradition, Ribeau’s vision for a new Howard may have ultimately been his downfall — the very thing that cost him his job — particularly at an institution that relishes in its past and has not readily embraced change.
In a carefully worded letter sent to students, faculty and supporters of the university on October 1, Ribeau, 65, said that he has decided to retire in December. But as details of the rocky relationship between him and the school’s Board of Trustees emerge, it appears that Ribeau was forced out of the job after just five years on the post.
The news of his departure came as a surprise to students and faculty members on the Washington, D.C., campus who say that Ribeau was making major strides in turning the financially strapped university around while also increasing the overall morale on campus.
“There is both a quiet on campus so far, but also a kind of shock,” says Dr. Greg Carr, the chair of Afro-American studies. “And when the shock passes, I don’t know what will come next. But there will be a lot of questions and, hopefully, a lot of answers.”
Carr and others point to Ribeau’s creation of the Presidential Commission on Academic Renewal, which pushed for a robust realignment of the curriculum to support the university’s reaccreditation efforts, as evidence of his accomplishments. They note that under his leadership, new buildings sprung up, providing a much-needed facelift to the aging campus.
“Whatever good comes about in the future is directly related to what Sidney Ribeau has done over the last five years,” says Carr, who also credited Ribeau with wooing Howard Dodson Jr. out of retirement to come to campus to direct the university’s famous Moorland-Spingarn Research Center. For nearly three decades, Dodson presided over Harlem’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. “There is a flowering of scholarship on campus that is directly related to the study of the African diaspora,” says Carr.
No one doubts that Howard has had its fair share of serious challenges. Last month, Moody’s Investors Service downgraded the university’s credit rating, citing revenue declines, deep cuts from Congress and speculation about transition in leadership as reasons for the slip on the rating scale.
And despite the school’s long list of successful alumni, Moody said that the university continues to struggle to raise enough funds and relies too heavily on the approximate $250 million that the federal government provides to the private university.
There were also allegations, according to several faculty members, that a former provost had hired several administrators from Atlanta — who were known across campus as the “Atlanta Gang.” They earned lucrative salaries but did very little work and were eventually terminated.
The university’s fiscal problems — which existed long before Ribeau even stepped foot onto Howard’s campus — is largely to blame for his abrupt exit.
At one point, it appeared that he had survived the chopping block when it was announced that he had secured a two-year extension to his contract.
But a source at the university said that the Board of Trustees was incensed to learn that Addison Barry Rand — who coincidently married Ribeau’s sister more than three decades ago — led the charge to push through the extension without first clearing the move with the board.
Neither Ribeau nor Rand, who is currently the chief executive officer of AARP — formerly called the American Association of Retired Persons — could be reached for comment.
Dr. Richard L. Wright, a professor in the School of Communications and a faculty trustee declined to comment on the discussions that took place at the board level, but said that he was impressed by Ribeau’s overall efforts, adding that he had helped to break down the historical boundaries that have long existed between the administration and faculty senate.
“He opened up more collaborative opportunities,” says Wright, who has taught at Howard since 1975. “I think the faculty wants to see a more robust collaboration and partnership with the administration and the board in the whole area of shared governance. Let’s create a culture of collaboration, where collaboration is substantive.”
The trustees have since announced that a national search to replace Ribeau will commence next year and have appointed Dr. Wayne A.I. Frederick, the school’s current provost and chief academic officer as the interim president.
“I am humbled and honored to serve my alma mater,” Frederick said in a statement released by the university. “Howard University occupies a preeminent place in the landscape of our nation’s leading universities. Few institutions of higher learning in the U.S. have played such an integral role in shaping our nation’s history, championing social change and producing trailblazers in public service, civil rights, science, law, the arts and humanities, medicine and education. We are committed to ensuring that our future mirrors our extraordinary past as we meet the needs of the 21st century learner.”
In April, the board’s vice chairwoman Renee Higginbotham-Brooks wrote a letter to the board where she lamented that the university “is in genuine trouble” and highlighted declining student enrollment and a lack of fundraising as her major concerns.
But when she was reached by phone, the Houston attorney who graduated from Howard was more upbeat and said that she is looking forward. “We are all very optimistic for the future,” she said.
Jamal Watson can be reached at [email protected]