Howard University is not a low-profile institution.
The institution, which is predominantly Black, has been educating generations of Black cultural and political leaders for more than 100 years. They include Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marsh, Stokely Carmichael (civil rights icon), Toni Morrison Nobel laureate, and Kamala Harris, Vice President.
Even by these standards, the school is on a hot streak, with new funding streams and cultural relevance, as well as high-profile faculty appointments. Howard's intention to dig into America's racial divide is evident by the recent hirings of Ta-Nehisi and Nikole Hannah Jones.
After a long tenure battle centered around conservative objections to her work, Hannah-Jones decided against teaching at University of North Carolina. Instead she chose Howard where she will hold Knight Chair in Journalism and Race. The "1619 Project" of The New York Times made her famous. This project reframed U.S. History through a racial equity lens. It also helped mainstream the concept of critical Race Theory, which has been a key Republican topic.
Coates has been critical of U.S. race relations over many years. He is closely linked to the argument for reparations.
Wayne Frederick, Howard's president doesn't see either Howard's or Howard's hiring as being overtly political. He views them as a natural extension to the university's motivating spirit.
Frederick stated in an interview that Howard University has been a part of the caravan for social justice for around 154 years. "Howard has a rich heritage. ... It is my responsibility to keep that legacy alive and to bring to the university faculty who are current in their field, speaking to today's issues.
Jelani Cobb, Columbia University journalism professor, describes the moves as a crucial leap in Columbia University's national standing. Howard had "moved up a whole section" from "punching above its body weight," he stated.
This is only a few years after a period of financial scandal and internal tension. Six employees were fired in 2018 after revelations of over $350,000 in grant funding misappropriation. Students occupied the administration building for nine days to protest student demands for better housing and a halt to tuition increases.
Howard has noticed an increase in enrollment and applications as more Black students opt to attend historically Black colleges. Noliwe Rooks of Brown University, who chairs the Africana studies department, said that he believes that there is a renaissance and that it is driven more by students than parents. Rooks was a Spelman student, an all-female HCU in Atlanta.
After the announcement of the hirings, Vice President Harris visited Howard. She addressed a news conference about a voter's rights initiative sponsored the Democratic National Committee. A packed house gave "amens" in church style and roared with applause when Harris called Howard "a very important aspect of why I stand before the United States of America at this moment as vice-president."
Current students see the school's rise in profile as a confirmation that they chose to attend "The Mecca", one of Howard’s many nicknames.
Kylie Burke, a political science major who is president of the Howard Student Association, said that Harris was "intangible." Burke, who was also from Northern California, attended Howard and served as a legislative fellow at Harris' office while she was a senator. Burke stated that Howard teaches you a lot about grit. It teaches to stay focused and to persevere.
Howard's dizzying stretch of work was completed by the hirings.
In the last year Harris was elected vice-president; MacKenzie Scott (ex-wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos) donated $40 million; and actor Phylicia Rahhad returned to her alma Mater as dean of the College of Fine Arts. The college will be named in honor of Chadwick Boseman (a Howard graduate who became an instant cultural icon through his role as Black Panther, the African superhero).
Boseman spoke of his love for the university during a 2018 commencement speech. He called it "a magical spot" and cited "Wakanda," one of its more recent nicknames. This is a reference to the film's technologically advanced African utopia.
Cobb stated that there is a growing interest among HBCU networks, but Howard will always be attracted to a specific demographic of Black students such as Harris who are interested in politics and governances. It has produced many members of Congress, Cabinet secretaries, and mayors. Ras Baraka was Cobb's undergraduate classmate and is now mayor of Newark in New Jersey.
Rooks stated that Hannah-Jones's move could have ripple effect throughout academia.
Rooks stated that historically, Black academics have been attracted to predominantly white universities due to the prestige and funding. Hannah-Jones brought more than just her fame; she also brought almost $20 million in funding.
Rooks stated, "It's quite another when you become the benefactor." We all learn how behave and act in the presence power. You're the one with the money and the power, so you've removed a whole racial dynamic from the equation.
Howard's rise to prominence is a risk, however, that it may overshadow smaller HBCUs. Rooks stated that Howard and a few other big names like Spelman, Morehouse and Hampton have the most funding and prestige. Half-jokingly she said that most Black American students couldn’t name more than 12 HBCUs across the country.
Rooks stated that there are only "five to six schools" that attract a lot attention in the HBCU community, with many others "desperately seeking funding."
Howard's recent fortune, she stated, "is not necessarily going to lift all the boats."