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With Harris and Hannah-Jones, Howard University is up and running

WASHINGTON (AP) – With the surprising hiring of twins of two of the country’s most prominent writers on race, Howard University positions itself as one of the primary centers of black academic thought, just as America fights through a painful crossroads over historical racial injustice.

But then Howard University has never exactly been low-profile.

For more than a century, the predominantly black institution of the nation’s capital has educated generations of black political and cultural leaders. Among them: Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, civil rights icon Stokely Carmichael, Nobel laureate Toni Morrison and Vice President Kamala Harris.

But even by these standards, the school has been on a hot streak lately with new funding flows, fresh cultural relevance and high-profile faculty grants. This past week̵

7;s appointment of Nikole Hannah-Jones and Ta-Nehisi Coates serves as confirmation that Howard intends to dive deep into America’s divisive race debate.

Hannah-Jones chose not to teach at the University of North Carolina after a lengthy time struggle focusing on conservative objections to her work and instead chose Howard, where she will hold the knighthood in race and journalism. She became famous with The New York Times’ “1619 Project”, which reformulated American history through a racist equity lens and helped integrate the idea of ​​critical race theory. – a topic that has become a central Republican conversation.

Coates has been writing critically about American racial conditions for years and is closely associated with the argument for compensation for slavery.

Howard’s president, Wayne Frederick, does not characterize employment as overtly political, but merely a natural extension of the university’s motivating ethos.

“Howard University has been on that caravan for social justice for about 154 years,” Frederick said in an interview. Howard has a rich heritage. … My responsibility is to contemporary it and bring the faculty to the university that is in the modern space and speak to contemporary issues. ”

Columbia University journalism professor Jelani Cobb, a Howard alumnus, described the movements as a crucial leap in the university’s national stature. Howard, he said, had gone from traditionally “beating over his weight class” to “moving up an entire division.”

All this is only a few years removed from a period of internal tension and economic scandal. In 2018, six employees were fired due to revelations of more than $ 350,000 in misused grant funding, and students staged a nine-day occupation of the administration building due to demands that included better housing and an end to tuition increases.

But even in the midst of these problems, Howard has seen a boost in applications and enrollment as more black students choose to go to historically black colleges and universities. “I think we’re seeing a renaissance and that it’s run by students more than parents,” said Noliwe Rooks, president of Africana Studies at Brown University. Rooks attended Spelman, an all-female HBCU in Atlanta.

Vice President Harris returned to Howard days after the appointments were announced. At a news conference on a suffrage initiative sponsored by the Democratic National Committee, she received a fierce welcome from a packed house that delivered church-like “amens” and burst into applause when she called Howard “a very important part of why I stand before you in this currently serving as Vice President of the United States of America. “

For current students, the school’s rising profile is a confirmation that they are choosing to attend “Mecca” – one of Howard’s many nicknames.

“There’s something really intangible about this university,” said Kylie Burke, a political scientist and president of the Howard Student Association, who introduced Harris to the event. Like Harris, Burke came from Northern California to attend Howard, and she served as a legislator in Harris’ office when she was a senator. “Howard teaches you something about gravel, it teaches you to stay focused, it teaches you to be persistent,” Burke said.

The hires limited a staggering stretch for Howard.

Within the past year, Harris was elected vice president; MacKenzie Scott, ex-wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, donated $ 40 million; and actress Phylicia Rashad returned to her alma mater as dean of the newly independent College of Fine Arts. That college will be named after the late Chadwick Boseman, a Howard graduate whose role as African superhero Black Panther made him an instant icon and shone a new cultural focus on the school.

Boseman expressed his love for the university in an inaugural speech in 2018, calling it “a magical place.” He quoted one of the school’s more modern nicknames, “Wakanda University”, a reference to the film’s technologically advanced African utopia.

Although there is growing interest across the HBCU network, Cobb said Howard will always attract a particular demographic of black students like Harris with an interest in politics and governance. The school has produced members of Congress, cabinet secretaries and mayors. One of Cobb’s classmates was Ras Baraka, now mayor of Newark, New Jersey.

Rooks said Hannah-Jones’ move could have ripple effects throughout academia.

Traditionally, Rooks said, black academics were attracted to predominantly white universities because that was where the funding and prestige lay. But Hannah-Jones not only brought her reputation; she also brought in nearly $ 20 million in funding.

“It’s a whole different thing when you become a charity,” Rooks said. “We all learn how to behave, how to act in the presence of power. If you’re the power, and it’s your money, you’ve taken an entire race dynamic off the table. ”

Yet Howard’s increasing prominence carries the risk of overshadowing smaller HBCUs. Rooks said Howard and a handful of other big names like Morehouse, Spelman and Hampton dominate the headlines and funding. She said half jokingly that most black American students could not name more than 12 of the 107 HBCUs in the country.

A possible example of the phenomenon: In 2019, NBA star Steph Curry donated an undisclosed amount that allows Howard to start Division I men’s and women’s golf teams and fund them for six years. Curry was raised in North Carolina, home to 10 active HBCUs, and has no particular connection to Howard.

The HBCU world is still boiling down to “five or six schools that really attract a lot of attention,” said Rooks and dozens of others who are “desperate for funding.”

Howard’s recent fortune, she said, “will not necessarily raise all the boats.”


Associated Press author Hilary Powell contributed to this report.


Follow Khalil on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ashrafkhalil

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