Howard University: a crisis of image

May 01, 1994|By Susan Baer and Michael A. Fletcher | Susan Baer and Michael A. Fletcher,Sun Staff Writers

WASHINGTON -- Andrew Gavil, a professor at Howard University Law School who is Jewish, has been getting phone calls from friends all over the country lately.

"Are you OK?" "What's happening there?" "Aren't you afraid?" they ask.

Similarly, Raissa Williams, a black Howard freshman from San Francisco, says her Jewish friends at other colleges have asked her, "Does everybody hate us there?"

A series of virulently anti-Semitic rallies sponsored by a small student organization at Howard, coupled with the cancellation of a speech by a prominent white scholar from Yale, has, almost overnight, transformed the reputation of one of the nation's premier black colleges into that of a bastion of bigotry and anti-Semitism.

A "citadel of hate," one newspaper editorialized. A breeding ground for "a new kind of racism," a network TV show cautioned.

Insisting they have been unfairly portrayed -- and fearful that the bad rap could mean a loss of funds for the university and job opportunities for its graduates -- students, faculty members and administrators at the 126-year-old university are trying to dig themselves out of a public relations nightmare.

"I don't know whether we could ever sufficiently repair this to return to the good standard that we had in the community," says Albert Roberts, a psychology professor who has taught at Howard for 22 years.

In the past two months, ever since the first of two heated Jew-baiting rallies that featured Khallid Abdul Muhammad of the Nation of Islam, the urban campus of brick buildings and blooming azaleas and nearly 12,000 students has been besieged by angry letters and phone calls from all over the country.

Congressional aides say that while no members of Congress have yet moved to limit funding for Howard -- which gets about 38 percent of its money from the federal government -- they anticipate some action, even if it's only symbolic.

At least one corporate donor has decided to stop contributing to the university. And even the United Negro College Fund has received a flood of phone calls and angry letters from people who mistakenly believe the group funds Howard University.

President resigns

Howard President Franklyn G. Jenifer, who has been criticized by some faculty members for not responding to the hate speeches more quickly and forcefully, announced his resignation about a week ago, just as the board of trustees was considering ousting him. He insists that his departure from Howard, to head the University of Texas at Dallas, is unrelated to the crisis.

"It's been a tough four years," he said in an interview as another protest call -- this one from former New York Mayor Edward I. Koch -- came in.

Still, the change of guard adds to the sense of crisis at the university which, like campuses across the country, is grappling with issues of free speech and race relations, and how to deal with vocal and militant strains that threaten to tarnish its once-stellar reputation.

Many Howard students, believing that they're being judged and smeared by the actions and sentiments of an unrepresentative few, are not only defensive, but angry and defiant. "To see us as one homogenous group of anti-Semites is not to see us at all," says sophomore Nathalie Richardson.

Faculty members such as Veronica G. Thomas defend the university as a place founded on tolerance and multiculturalism. "I think if you assemble a random selection of faculty and students, I don't think that this anti-Semitic image of Howard would hold up," the professor of human development says.

The crisis at Howard comes at a time when the university has struggled to raise academic standards while other schools have challenged its reputation as the nation's top black institution, one that produced such alumni as former New York City Mayor David N. Dinkins, Nobel Prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison and former United Nations Ambassador Andrew Young.

The intense scrutiny of Howard also comes on the heels of a new wave of concern over the state of black-Jewish relations, sparked several months ago by a highly publicized hate speech by Mr. Muhammad at Kean College in New Jersey.

His remarks derailed attempts by members of the mainstream black leadership to reach out to the Nation of Islam.

As a result, Mr. Muhammad, a disciple of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, has become, as Dr. Jenifer says, "the general chief in charge of bigotry and anti-Semitism." Some schools, such as Atlanta's Emory University, have barred him from speaking on campus.

The rallies

Feb. 23. Howard's Cramton Auditorium. Howard University law student Malik Zulu Shabazz: "Who is it that controls the media and Hollywood in America?"

Audience: "Jews."

Mr. Shabazz: "Who is it that has our entertainers in a vise grip and our athletes in their vise grip?"

Audience: "Jews."

Mr. Shabazz: "Who is it that has been spying on black leaders and spying on Martin Luther King and set up his death?"

Audience: "Jews."

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