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Monday, March 12, 2007

Howard U. Pres. comes under fire

The head of the faculty senate called for the ouster of Howard University President H. Patrick Swygert, saying that the school is in a state of crisis and that it's time to end "an intolerable condition of incompetence and dysfunction at the highest level."

In a letter to the board of trustees this week that was obtained by The Washington Post, Theodore Bremner, chairman of the senate, complained on behalf of the leadership council that Swygert has jeopardized the financial health of Howard and left academic programs in disarray. The letter cited a recent National Science Foundation (NSF) audit that criticized Howard's management of grant money; the private university's largest source of revenue is the federal government.

The letter ended with a recommendation to begin the search for a new president immediately. The faculty senate, which represents more than 1,000 full-time professors, has often had a contentious relationship with the administration, with some complaints about insufficient funding. The letter carries symbolic weight but no authority; the board has ultimate say on the president's fate.

Swygert, who led the university's Charter Day ceremonies yesterday and has been president of one of the country's most prestigious historically black universities since 1995, said he has seen the letter. "I think it clearly demonstrates how democratic and how open the university is and how free the faculty is to express opinions."

He said he is not going to resign.

Addison Barry Rand, the chairman of the board, said that the members take all complaints seriously but that "we don't really know enough" about why the letter was sent. He said that Swygert suggested a dialogue with faculty leaders, and that one is being scheduled. "Then we will understand what is behind this," said Rand, who yesterday attended the ceremonies marking the university's founding 140 years ago.

At a reception tonight, the university will honor alumni, including D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, and celebrate a successful fundraising campaign. Earlier this week, school officials announced that they had met their $250 million goal nearly a year early.

In a March 6 meeting, the council of the faculty senate voted 16 to 2, with one abstention, to send a letter of concern to the board. Two professors noted that the council barely got a quorum to vote on the issue; there are about 50 members.

The letter lists concerns, including frustration with "a culture of administrative indifference and disregard" for the faculty senate's role -- a complaint at many universities. It states that the president failed to keep financial problems at the university hospital from spilling over into academic budgets. Academic programs are in disarray, the letter states, with substandard equipment and facilities. "The president has failed in many instances to implement funded programs when such funds have been awarded . . . has failed to provide effective administration of research grants . . . has failed to identify alternative financial sources given that the federal appropriation has remained flat."

Both Rand and Swygert pointed to the successful fundraising campaign to counter that last complaint; the fundraising goal was exceeded by $10 million.

Several other trustees declined to comment yesterday.

But some faculty members and others described the school as deeply troubled. "The place is in a state of chaos," Bremner said. "It's just managed crisis right now. So many things are not working."

He said, "Things are falling apart -- fairly rapidly."

In the past few years, there have been protests by students at the lack of leadership at the Divinity School, worries about the nursing and pharmacy programs, questions from accrediting agencies and intense debate over hospital plans. A proposal by the city and Howard to jointly build a $400 million medical center collapsed after two years of planning. Public scrutiny of the project, which Swygert pushed with university trustees, raised serious questions about the health of Howard's existing hospital and its university oversight.

An NSF audit found concerns with the way the university administered and tracked federal research grant money, including documenting the millions of dollars in projects with other universities and in subcontracts. "I think they showed clear evidence of not having the internal controls required," Tim Cross, the deputy inspector general for the NSF, said yesterday. "On the other hand, they showed the proper attention and took the steps to correct that."

It has been a tumultuous couple of years for Washington universities, as the presidents of two major schools stepped down under pressure.

At American University in 2005, the full faculty senate voiced outrage after an audit questioned hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of spending by President Benjamin Ladner. Last fall at Gallaudet University, the faculty senate passed resolutions expressing lack of confidence in both the incoming president, Jane K. Fernandes, and outgoing president I. King Jordan. The appointments of Ladner and Fernandes were terminated by their boards, and both schools now have interim presidents.

During his tenure, Swygert has undertaken a strategic reorganization of the university and moved to participate in neighborhood redevelopment, partnering with the Fannie Mae Foundation to develop part of the surrounding LeDroit Park neighborhood. Two libraries, high-tech computing labs and wireless technology were added to the campus.

Rochelle Ford, a professor, said that although she agreed with the letter that "improvements" were needed at the University, replacing Swygert was not the most practical solution. "There has to be some continuity. In the cost-benefit analysis, he has done a lot of good."

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