Bob Ray Sanders

November 30, 2013

FW lawyer shakes up historic alma mater, Howard University

Attorney Renee Higginbotham-Brooks forcefully addressed mismanagement and declining income.

Howard University, founded shortly after the Civil War in 1867, is considered by many to be the most significant black institution in the country — perhaps the world.

Located in the nation’s capital and boasting prestigious schools of medicine, law, dentistry, business, social work and divinity, through the years it has graduated a “who’s who” of black leaders and masters in the arts and letters.

Both Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington served on the historic school’s board of trustees.

But bold action by Fort Worth attorney Renee Higginbotham-Brooks, an honor graduate of the university who serves as vice-chair of its board, has rocked the Howard campus and its larger community.

In a damning letter to the board written in April and leaked to the press in June, Higginbotham-Brooks warned “that our beloved University is in genuine trouble. …

“Howard will not be here in three years if we don’t make some crucial decisions now.”

The attorney, who said her law practice has been on hold since this controversy began, cited poor leadership of the board chairman and university president; enrollment problems, with fewer students being able to arrange financial aid; declining federal dollars, which make up more than a quarter of the budget; lack of adequate fundraising; over-staffing (5,000 employees for an enrollment of 10,000 students); and the drain of resources caused by operating a university hospital.

An 11-year breast cancer survivor who received all of her treatments at Howard University Hospital, Higginbotham-Brooks said she understands the significance of the medical center, but she wrote that “we need to either sell it or get the D.C. government to properly reimburse us for the care provided to its citizens.”

Although she has said she will let the letter speak for itself and won’t discuss the matter in the press, national media and higher education journals have widely reported her concerns about Howard, which, some say, are issues facing many of the nation’s historically black colleges.

The black institutions are losing many prospective students to other well-known universities that are recruiting them and, as Higginbotham-Brooks pointed out, many high school counselors are steering students to less expensive state and community colleges.

Since she wrote her letter about the school’s “dysfunctional environment,” the problems she outlined have been amplified and many confirmed by other sources.

In September Moody’s Investors Service downgraded the university’s credit rating because of enrollment issues, declining revenue and federal budget cuts.

U. S. News and World Report dropped the university 22 places in its annual ranking, to 142.

Academic deans called on the school to get rid of its chief financial officer.

The Faculty Senate passed a resolution in October voicing no confidence in the school’s administrative and board leadership.

The “no confidence” vote came just a few weeks after school President Sidney A. Ribeau, who had been given an extended contract this summer, announced his retirement effective at the end of December.

Higginbotham-Brooks, who still doesn’t talk about the specifics of her complaints — preferring to keep that a board matter — said the ordeal has taken a toll on her.

In addition to putting her law practice on hold, she said the experience has had a great emotional impact.

“I’ve been isolated and ostracized,” she said. “But I don’t regret it. I had to stand out on principle. Sometimes in life you just have to do that.”

She added, “It’s made me a better person, a more thoughtful person, a praying person.”

Higginbotham-Brooks, who noted in her letter that she personally had given $350,000 to the university and raised another $500,000, said people locally and nationally have congratulated her courage to take a stand.

In fact, she said, some are urging her to run for state Senate District 10 to replace Wendy Davis, who is running for governor.

She laughed at first, she said, but confesses she’s given it some thought.

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