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Getting to Know Dr. Sidney Ribeau

Dr. Sidney A Ribeau on Friday will be officially inducted as the 16th president of Howard University, marking a new chapter in the university’s 142-year history.

Ribeau says he is committed to renewing the historic legacy of Howard University by expanding the university’s proven influence in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

In a wide-ranging interview with Diverse, he rejects persistent criticism questioning the relevancy of historically Black colleges in a socially progressive era marked by the election of a Black commander in chief to the White House.

“We just celebrated our 142-year anniversary, and it is critically important for Howard to remember the things that allowed us to add value to the quality of life in America,” says Ribeau, referencing, for example, the continued impact of Howard University’s hospital and college of medicine.

“Freedmen’s Hospital [currently Howard University Hospital] has a 140-year-old history of serving the underserved in this community,” he says. “Georgetown University sold its hospital. George Washington University sold its hospital. Howard still has ours, and that hospital is providing care to people who can’t afford it.”

Link the hospital to the medical school, which produced the most Black doctors in 2007, and the university’s 21st-century relevance is clear, Ribeau says.

“Howard ranks No. 1 by the National Science Foundation in [producing] the highest number of African-American bachelor’s degree recipients who continued on with their studies and earned science and engineering doctoral degrees nationally,” says Ribeau. “I had this debate this past week. People were saying, ‘Why do you still need HBCUs?’ Well, the majority of African-Americans in STEM are coming from Howard or other HBCUs. This is in 2009.”

Howard University is a top producer of African-American doctorates in the United States. It is the No. 1 producer of medical degrees for African-Americans, according to Diverse: Issues In Higher Education’s 2008 Top 100 Graduate Degree Producers, which is based on graduation data from the 2006-2007 academic year. Howard is also the No. 2 producer of law degrees for African-Americans.

Ribeau, formerly the president of Bowling Green State University in Ohio, began his career as a communications professor in 1976 at California State University, Los Angeles.

The economic recession facing the country has hit higher education hard and historically Black colleges even harder. Howard, one of the more affluent Black colleges, is no exception. As a result of the tough economy, Ribeau has instituted a hiring freeze and authorized mandatory furlough days this semester.

“Things are tight,” says Ribeau. “We have lost 30 percent of our endowment … down from about $600 million to less than $400 million. There will be no raises this year. No bonuses. None of that is happening.”

Still, insists Ribeau, an economic downturn will not dictate Howard’s social or academic outcomes.

“I’m so proud of our students who traveled to New Orleans, Chicago and Detroit to do community service for alternative spring break. Our students decided to work on gun control, literacy and homelessness issues in these cities,” says Ribeau. “The students who participated in the Engineers Without Borders program in Kenya during spring break; they are the Howard of today. They brought irrigation electricity and construction to [Kenya and also Brazil].”

Ribeau adds, “That is something that is a unique aspect of the Howard mission of service. It links all the way back to the hospital that was initially for freedmen in need of health care.”

Click here to listen to the rest of Diverse reporter Michelle J. Nealy’s interview with Dr. Sidney A. Ribeau.

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