During Howard University’s (HU) upcoming commencement convocation on Saturday, May 7, HU President Dr. Wayne A.I. Frederick, more than likely for the last time, will lead the university’s 154th graduating class in a procession through the Upper Quadrangle, also known as The Yard.
The milestone marks the end of an academic year during which Frederick’s stewardship of the university has often been a point of criticism for students, faculty, alumni and community members who have protested, led on-campus rallies and written letters in support of unhoused students, overworked faculty members and underpaid nurses.
That’s why, in the aftermath of Frederick’s recent announcement of his retirement, as administrators and board of trustee members at HU lay the groundwork for a two-year transition in presidential leadership, some alumni have not only called for a more streamlined process but have led a growing request that the next president make history – the first Black woman installed as the university’s leader.
In advancing the cause, Fred Outten, a HU alumnus who’s currently engaging other graduates around the issue, pointed out that an untold number of Black women of various professional and academic backgrounds fit the bill for a suitable university leader. However, he stopped short of highlighting any particular Black woman.
“We want to galvanize alumni to see to it that a Black woman becomes the 18th president of our beloved mecca,” said Outten, a 1999 HU graduate.
“We’ve seen a lot of activities on campus that weren’t in the best interest of students, faculty and staff,” he said. “It’s been going on for 25 years. We wanted to put in a different perspective and see some new energy.”
Over the last decade, Black women have increasingly become HBCU presidents. In 2015, Dr. Colette Pierce Burnette became the first Black female president of Huston-Tillotson University in Austin, Texas, while Dr. Cynthia Warwick broke the barrier at Stillman College in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
At Benedict College in Columbia, South Carolina, Dr. Roslyn Clark Artis became the first Black female president in 2017. Earlier this year, she estimated the number of Black female HBCU leaders, past and present, to be 83, four of whom she said have served twice.
HU has had a Black female president just once, in 1994, when Dr. Joyce Ladner, a civil rights activist, author and sociologist, served as interim president after Franklyn Jenifer resigned. She never secured the full presidency. Instead, H. Patrick Swygert would serve in that role from 1995 to 2008. Sidney Ribeau then served from 2008 until 2014 after which Dr. Wayne A. I. Frederick took the helm.
During a recent State of the University address which Frederick gave just days after announcing his retirement, he highlighted ongoing development projects that will culminate in new academic buildings and a teaching hospital, among other amenities. He also spoke about efforts to secure federal and private funding and ensured students and faculty that he has done his best to address concerns.
However, the degree to which Frederick has engaged students, faculty, staff and alumni has been called into question. Outten said since launching the campaign, dozens of HU alumni have elicited support for a Black female university president, all while reflecting on aspects of their HU experience, particularly the campus protests for campus and housing conditions that have persisted for decades.
Upon hearing about the campaign, HU alumnus and Howard Alumni United member Fahima Seck suggested Dr. Julianne Malveaux, former president of Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, N.C. and current dean of Cal State’s School of Ethnic Studies, as a viable choice for HU president.
Seck, also a 1999 HU graduate, participated in a 1997 protest at HU’s administration building in response to Swygert’s plan to merge the College of Fine Arts and College of Arts and Sciences. In declaring her support of Malveaux, Seck cited Malveaux’s economics background and described her as a person who prioritizes the needs of students, faculty, alumni and community members.
“Dr. Malveaux has given strong leadership and won’t be bullied or influenced by outside forces,” Seck said. “She has the integrity and character to be president of Howard University. She would have the insight and know-how on how to fiscally manage Howard University. She’ll do what’s best for all stakeholders. She’s principled.”
As the spring semester comes to a close and students prepare for summer classes and programs, many of them look to the fall. One nagging question on the minds of students focuses on where they’ll live once they return to class in August. Campus housing, an issue that served as the focal point of the Blackburn Takeover last fall, has preoccupied most rising juniors and seniors who have no guarantee for on-campus housing.
In speaking about the need for more student housing, one HU sophomore who requested anonymity said a Black female president should be given the chance to restore trust between HU administration and community members.
“We need someone whose interests align with students,” the student said. “I know Howard University had a Black woman as an interim president but we haven’t had any Black women appointees.”