After a decade as president, Dr. Wayne A.I. Frederick will leave Howard University a very different place than he entered it. He came to Howard as a 16–year-old undergraduate from Trinidad and Tobago who went on to graduate from both its medical and business schools. His unusual profile as a surgeon and an academic have served him well as he steered the prestigious HBCU through a remarkable time for Black Americans – starting with the Obama presidency, the Black Lives Matter movement, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the insurrection of January 6th, 2021, which occurred just a few miles from his campus.
He describes the school’s transformation over the past several years almost as if it were the personal growth of an individual, not an institution. As he prepares to leave the place to which he has long belonged, Dr. Frederick provides a perspective on the country, on young people, and on higher education that is honest and well worth hearing. Here is an excerpt of our interview.
LW: How has Howard changed under your leadership?
WF: Howard has always had big potential and a big legacy, and I think today Howard is fulfilling its potential and living its legacy. I think that's the biggest difference: while we've existed on what has happened before, I think we now have a contemporary experience of excellence, and a contemporary expectation of being excellent. And I think that that's very different. This is true across categories. We are poised to be an R1 research institution. Financially, we've come out well from a very unstable financial existence which, to be quite honest, has been something that has plagued us throughout our history until now. Our enrollment is the largest it's ever been, so we're serving more students than ever before, and also graduating them at a higher rate than ever before, so we are really fulfilling our academic mission. I would say the third thing is we're taking care of each other in a way that we haven't done before. We are a community that's inclusive, that recognizes the importance of holistic health including mental health.
LW: What did it take to make these significant changes? What were the obstacles?
WF: As I look in the rear-view mirror, bringing my tenure to an end, I would say the biggest obstacle was making sure that we had self-belief. I think that we believed to a certain extent in our past, but I'm not sure that we always believed that we could be what we are today. And I think that self-belief was something that we had to build. Our graduates are such an accomplished group of people who become national and international figures, that that legacy of who we are took on a life of its own. But the actual numbers, the actual data, did not necessarily bear that out. We started really looking at ourselves, doing the introspection but at the same time, setting out a plan to become that. The graduation rate has increased by over 25% during my tenure, as an example. We're starting to really live out our legacy.
The second obstacle was overcoming long-standing issues around how we fund our institution, looking at the business model, looking at what we did with respect to fundraising. And I think we really looked at those things very differently as we moved forward. We started to be bold about stepping into spaces and places that we weren't always welcomed. And once we were able to get in there and tell our story, people were very impressed and willing to invest in us.
LW: Your enrollment and graduation rate increases—I'm guessing they had something to do with the work that you've been doing on affordability?
WF: Yes. The number one reason that Howard students did not graduate was because of finances. That financial barrier then led to other things—people working extra jobs, not getting enough sleep, not being able to focus enough on their schoolwork, that type of thing. Coming in, that was an issue that we looked at. We were not raising enough endowed funds to help offset students' bills, so we started doing things differently. We started what's called a Grace Grant, which is a grant that we give to students who have an expected family contribution of zero. They get the maximum Pell [Grant]. We fill the rest of their gap on their tuition in order to help them matriculate. We immediately started seeing a big difference in the graduation rate. Those students who did not get the full support graduated somewhere in the low 60s percentage-wise. The graduation rate of those who got it was 90-something percent.
We went to investors and donors and said to them, "Look at this data." And people started giving money, and we've now raised in excess of $45 million in that one area, with a goal of getting all the way to $100 million. That's an example where we did something different. We used the data...and convinced our investors that they should invest in us.
LW: Student activism is something that Howard is known for, but it has also been a challenge for you. How do you reflect on those experiences now?
WF: When I look at students who come to Howard, they're very concerned about their place in society and what society has done and not done for them. That’s important and not lost on me. However, there is some romanticism among students that activism is really all about protesting, none of which I have a problem with. But what I do want to make sure we have is the right balance, that we take our activism and advocacy, and we test it. We use all of the tools of negotiation, of interrogation, of debate, so that we do get the outcome we want. I think we’ve often had this in the wrong order. Particularly later on in my tenure, I’ve been trying to put the students' activism to work in a proactive fashion and not wait for there to be an issue to get somebody engaged in a conversation.
LW: What would you say about the politicization of higher education today, the roll back efforts around DEI, the sense that it is too biased, less valuable?
WF: Let me start by saying that I think the issue in this country right now with extreme partisanship is real and it is causing our young people to question so many things about our society, including the things that we, over time, have come to love and hold up almost as a moral compass.
We live in a country where we tout our democracy. We tout the ability for free elections. We tout our ability for the transfer of power, unencumbered. And these young people have now lived in an era where every single one of those things has been questioned. We've portrayed ourselves to the rest of the world as an arbiter of democracy and now we question everything about our elections. We question who should vote, how it should be managed. Young people see that, and they say, "There's a hypocrisy taking place here. While you guys are casting aspersions afar, we have a problem right here. And you're not solving it."
As a result, they have started to turn away from a belief in that system. And I think that has hurt us. And as it seeps into this debate about liberalism in our education system, and turning back the tides on DEI, I think what people have started to say is, "I'm not sure that I believe in any of these things anymore. I feel that you guys are not honest about what it is you're doing."
Young people are questioning even more. They're questioning the very existence of why we are doing this and how we get here. How are we going to turn this off? So, in my humble opinion, I think that our young people have to be redirected. How do we solve for this going forward as people question whether higher education is important anymore, in terms of being able to live a better life as a result? I think what we have to do in higher education is to continue to tout and sell what higher education has been to this country. We have to lift those things up.
And we do have to question and interrogate how we are providing information. Is it allowing students to practice critical thinking? I would say that right now, it is not. On the average campus, it's leaning left or leaning right, and when we bring people from the opposite side to speak on campuses, we're shutting them down. We're not having rich debate. And if it is not happening on our campuses, you have to believe it's not happening in our barber shops, or in our grocery stores. And if we are a country that is not going to speak to each other because we have different views, we're not going to be as strong as we could be. It's a very critical time for higher education. I think we have to recognize how disappointed our young people are in our larger societal constructs, and we have to provide a solution for that in our higher ed institutions.
We need to remind our young people that we all belong to this construct, and we all have to figure out a way to make it work. It's our responsibility, and in doing that, we don't leave anybody behind. Right now, we almost have a sanitary view about all this and we just avoid each other. There are certain things we just don't go to or participate in. And I think we need to change that, and say, "You know what? That's not the right thing to do. Let's go out with the goal of amplifying each other's humanity."
And if we make that our goal, then we have a responsibility when we see an issue to jump in; whether we have an expertise or not, we need to learn about it and to understand it. I don't live in rural America, but there are challenges for people living in rural America. So the question is, “Do I have a responsibility to learn what those challenges may be? And, when I do, is there something I could do about it?” Instead, what we say is, “if somebody lives in rural America, that's not my problem.” And I think we have to get away from that because our goal, our responsibility, as a higher ed institution, is to amplify other people's humanity.
LW: How can higher education help address these issues?
WF: I think we have a real gap in civics education in our country. Most students who come to college aren't aware of who their state reps or senators are, or even how bills get passed, or how laws are made. I think that's another thing that we have to try to do a better job of—to explain how the country works so that when a Supreme Court decision comes down, students understand that that's the tail end of a process that started in somebody's court, in somebody's jurisdiction. And I don't think most students recognize that at all.
Take students’ frustration with, for instance, the overturning of Roe v. Wade. They don't recognize that the case that led to that started way back, and because nobody was paying attention, it didn’t get the type of activity around it when it should have. And for higher ed students in particular, they should be the most active among us, and they have the most resources to do that. And so, we should be supporting them better in this area.
LW: The January 6th, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capital: How did that impact the Howard community? And the reaction to that in America—what does that say about the separateness you are concerned about?
WF: Several things about that day I think just encapsulate so much of our reality today. One was that I came out of my office and noticed a significant number of individuals associated with the Proud Boys movement parking their cars in parking lots around Howard. And I realized, subsequent to that, that it was because there was a train station there. But initially, we had no idea why it was happening. Was it because the vice president had gone to school here? So my security chief started setting up cars to kind of block access to the street. And then you go from that, down to the Capitol and all that was going on that day. I got home and my kids were looking at the television. And I said to both to them, "Listen, you guys have been in front of CNN for the past two-to-three hours." They were very distressed obviously and I said, "Let's change the channel. Let's go on Fox News for a little bit." And so they did.
The goal was to stay there for 30 minutes. I think they lasted 10 or 11 minutes and said they couldn't watch it anymore. And I said to them, "There are some kids who just did what you guys did. For three hours, they watched Fox News and their version of what is happening is very different from yours. That doesn't make them bad. That doesn't make them love this country any less. But it means that they have a different perspective. And part of your responsibility is to see how you can bridge that gap—not to become who they are, but to understand who they are. And to recognize that they have every right to their position as you do. And the more you're empathetic about their perspective and understand it, even if you disagree with it, the more harmony there could be."
Unfortunately, we are not giving our young people good examples. There's a senator who called me to ask about coming to speak to my grad students after the 2016 election. And I said to the person, "I would love to have you, but I want you to do me a favor. I want you to come with another senator from across the aisle, with whom you've worked on something difficult, so my students can see that that's how you guys work." And the person just calmly looked at me and said, "Nah. At least, not this time." And I thought to myself, "These are the people making laws in our country. If they don't want to speak to each other, then we can't expect our young people to take anything else away from it."
For me, what is worse than the yelling is the silence. There is a distressing silence in this country and that is the sound of people not speaking to each other. That is even more dangerous. And that's why I started with why I think young people are so jaded today. They have the attitude of, "Why are you trying to tell me what to do when you guys can't get it together yourselves?" And the thing is, our young people actually are much more flexible and much more empathetic about people who are not in their circumstances, so we have an opportunity in the country. Young people are much more altruistic. They're much more willing to understand a person’s sexual orientation or a person’s financial or social circumstances than older generations are. So, I think that we have to jump on that opportunity, because they have that openness.
LW: As president of Howard, you are very active in the HBCU community. What are some of the biggest issues facing the sector right now?
WF: I would say funding of infrastructure is really the challenge. After George Floyd's murder, giving to social justice issues really spiked and HBCUs got a lot of attention. But it wasn't the entire sector. It probably was 20-to-25 institutions out of a hundred that really got attention and got money. That money has since gone away in many ways. Howard's infrastructure around fundraising was there so we will continue to do well, but I'm really, really concerned that if those institutions are not able to have sustainable growth and sustainable funding, we could get into trouble as an entire sector.
The question we need to answer is why is it even important to have strong HBCUs? Well, the data show that we produce and diversify so many fields—way above what our collective capacity is—and that we have to exist in order to diversify other, different fields. Howard still sends more African Americans to medical school than any school in the country, as an example.
But I do worry that this attention that has occurred over the past two or three years to some segment of the sector, which has already started to go away, will ultimately hurt the sector, because of longer-term neglect. People now are going to say, "Well, listen. We jumped in and gave you guys some support and funding. And now we don't have to do that."
The second thing that I think is important for us to be thinking about is that we have to be competitive on an even playing field. The product that we supply has to be one of excellence. And I know that I speak for Howard in particular, but that has been our focus. We've been very focused on having the best programs, the best exposure that our students could get. And I'm very proud of what we've built around that. Students who come here have very strong track records in terms of where they end up in their jobs and in life. That's something that we've invested in, and that we're committed to long-term.
LW: Speaking of improvements, you have made headlines with some of your hires. How does that fit into the story?
WF: It's a good question because again, I think this is a demonstration of what I’ve been talking about. These are people that make a big splash. There’s no doubt about it because of their celebrity. But my attraction to them was really because of their excellence and their commitment to that excellence. I developed a relationship with Ta-Nehisi Coates that was very personal and that started off with me convincing him to finish his degree. A little-known fact is that this famous author who is on my campus as a faculty member and teaching and holding a chair, is also matriculating to finish his degree. And that shows his commitment to excellence. I think when people see what Ta-Nehisi is producing, they’ll know this is far more than having a big name join you. He had a writing workshop for students in the summer that he began before he started teaching. I will predict that several of those students are going to go on to become great authors like [him]. And that, ultimately, is going to be his legacy as well. But that's the type of excellence that he's bringing.
With Nikole Hannah-Jones, that was obviously a bit more opportunistic but, again, she had lots of other schools trying to step into this and I think the conversation that she had with me was quite different. I was not promising the bells and whistles. But what I was promising is that we would fulfill her mission to make sure that the role that journalism plays in our democracy would be alive and well. And I think that that intersection of our principles and mission is what attracted her to Howard.
With Phylicia Rashad, I have to admit, I got a great assist from Chadwick Boseman, having him help me convince her to become the dean [of the College of Fine Arts]. Because [Rashad] could see so much in [Boseman], that she would then see in our young people, I knew what her commitment was.
By the time this is published, I will have made another important hire. All of these people, in my opinion, whether it's Stacey Abrams or [a future hire], they have been excellent in their own right. In my recruitment of them, we've been having conversations about what that excellence looks like, and how that fits in with what we are trying to do at Howard.
Unfortunately, sometimes that celebrity has overshadowed the other incredible faculty we've hired – nobody is going to put them on the front of the New York Times but, the reality is, I think in terms of academia, they are stars. That's the other thing that I think hasn't been well-told about our story – we've certainly been consistent. It just so happens that the public personalities have gotten a lot of attention.
LW: You have less than a year left as president, will you give us a hint as to what you are going to do next?
WF: My intent is to retire, to really just take some time. I have committed to the board that when my successor gets here (Ben Vinson III, current provost of Case Western Reserve University), I will actively help him with the transition. We're already meeting once a week right now. Subsequent to that, I have a son who plays soccer in college and a daughter who plays volleyball—she’s a rising senior in high school—and I'm going to try to make it to every one of their games. I'm going to continue to travel with my wife. I want to travel to places where I could do some medical missions as well. I want to try to do about four medical missions a year. The other thing I'm committed to doing is going to Trinidad once a month to help mentor kids and that includes helping them to apply to higher ed in the U.S.
LW: That's wonderful. Your wife, is she also a physician?
WF: No, she is the smart one in the family. She has a degree in computer science.