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HBCU Presidents Face Unique Burdens In Bringing Students Back To Campus

Howard University President Dr. Wayne A. I. Frederick speaks at the Director of National Intelligence headquarters.

The coronavirus pandemic has disproportionately damaged communities of color across the United States.

That fact has raised significant questions about inequities in healthcare and housing, but it has also made life more complex for the historically Black colleges and universities that are grappling with how to return students safely to campus in the fall.

While all institutions of higher learning are undergoing a collective existential crisis, HBCUs face the extra hurdle of providing for the safety and health of student populations — and endowments — that could be much more vulnerable to outbreaks of the coronavirus.

On the latest Walker & Dunlop weekly Walker Webcast, Howard University President Dr. Wayne Frederick shed light on some of the unique challenges that his school faces in its plan to reopen in the fall and how his background as a surgeon and physician has informed the choices he has made with respect to the university.

Here are some of the highlights from Frederick's conversation with Walker & Dunlop CEO Willy Walker:

Walker: In a letter to the Howard community, you wrote that you were planning a hybrid academic model, where some students and faculty will be in the classroom and others will be online. How do you determine the health risk for faculty, staff and students given the current spike in coronavirus cases that we’re seeing?

Frederick: It's very concerning. Back in mid-April, when we thought we had hit a peak and we're coming down, I felt fairly confident that we could do this safely. As I sit here today, I am extremely concerned if we can. 

We bring in students from 46 states and about 71 countries. That's a milieu for putting stuff in a Petri dish that could be explosive. And so we have to be thoughtful. We're continuing to move forward with our hybrid model with robust testing, but we are going to be very willing to go fully online if we don't think the societal circumstances are going to accommodate what we do. 

Howard is in a unique circumstance, because the coronavirus has disproportionately affected African Americans. I employ more African American faculty than any other higher institution in this country. So I have a moral obligation to make sure that I don't put them at risk. 

But we also have to balance against that the fact that we educate a significant number of low-income students. One of the things that they get from a Howard education is an environment where they can socialize and also develop soft skills and grow their confidence outside a world that structurally disadvantages them. Holding classes online is not the same. We want to make sure that those young people don't lose ground as well.

Walker: 80% of the deaths from the coronavirus in Washington, D.C., have been among African Americans. Do you think this disproportionate impact is due to access to healthcare, the density of the communities where African Americans live, the underlying health conditions in the African American population or something else?

Frederick: It's a combination of those factors as well as something that I would refer to as weathering. Most people don't appreciate that, over time, if you live in adverse conditions that pile up against you, that continuous weathering also decreases your ability to participate in society fully. 

Right here in D.C’s Ward 3, which is 95% white by population, the life expectancy there is about 87 years. If you go to Ward 7 or 8, where it's 95% African American, the life expectancy of an African American male is around 67 years. That big a difference, just a few miles apart. These are human beings often with the same genetic makeup and same risk factors but which have a completely different health outcome. 

There is no acute care facility in Ward 7 or 8. If you're a pregnant mother, you have to come across the river to one of the other wards to deliver that baby. There are only two full-service grocery stores in Wards 7 and 8 that have to serve about 170,000 residents. So if you're looking for nutritious food or fresh vegetables, that’s not a simple task.

Then you have a virus like this that adversely affects people with comorbidities such as hypertension and diabetes and the incidence is incredible, and this is the nation's capital. If you look at the maternal mortality rate or the incidence of end-stage renal disease in this city, you would not be sure that you were even in America. 

Incidents like this pandemic actually double down on that weathering. With the disproportionate African American unemployment, it’s going to give another dent to generational wealth. You can’t build wealth to the same degree if you live 20 years less than someone else. When we talk about generational wealth, we have to get people to live long enough to even get there.

Walker: Howard is located right in the heart of Washington, D.C., and it’s one of the most urban campuses in the country. If there is an outbreak of COVID-19 at Howard in the fall, is it realistic to think that you could control it?

Frederick: I think it is realistic to believe that we can quarantine, especially with a hospital right here, having the campus de-densified and having the number of students in dorms decreased.

It will require a lot of cooperation in terms of contact tracing, and testing is going to be critical. We've secured a free testing solution in which we will have a CLIA-certified lab that has a turnaround time of three hours or less. We've identified spaces in the dorms to isolate people if need be, so I do think that there is an opportunity for us to do this safely.

Is it risky? And if it does get out of control, do we have to make a decision to shut down? Absolutely. But the other thing we have to define is what "out of control" really is. That's up for debate. And that's something that we are talking about actively.

Walker & Dunlop CEO Willy Walker on a webinar with Dr. Wayne Frederick.

Walker: It's my assumption that your students have been participants and, in many instances, leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement across the country over the past month. How are you going to manage the health concerns of congregating and protesting while balancing the fact that Howard students will be leaders on racial justice issues?

Frederick: The march for social justice is a long one and one that Howard has gotten involved in from its inception back in 1867. Right now we're in a moment where lots of other people are joining that journey, and we're thankful for that. So in this moment, we have to welcome them in, but we still have to focus on doing the things that we need to do to right the wrongs and ills of our society. And that's what we're going to continue doing.

We have to educate our students and our community about the risk of how that's done. We're going to be starting a series called "From Protest to Policy" where we're going to be doing some webinars and symposia directed at our students and the rest of our community to get them to focus on, "What are the solutions? What is the discussion about reparations? Where did that come from? What is the basis for it? What does it look like and how can we bring solutions around some of the injustices?"

I think that we can mobilize, so the point is that protesting is an aspect of what we do, but it's just one aspect of what they're going to do, and they can do that in a responsible and safe manner and healthy manner. What I think we need to get them focused on is really looking at what the solutions are.

Walker: So I've given talks at Howard, I've recruited at Howard, and it is not easy to gain traction as it relates to recruiting talented African Americans to corporate America. What suggestions would you give the many corporate leaders who are watching this webinar today on how to be successful at recruiting people of color into their companies? 

Frederick: I think my students are looking for a long-term relationship. They're looking for people who are committed. When people come to recruit, they have to recognize that students may already suspect that the actual work environment may not look like them. 

It’s a longitudinal process. It’s not just show up on Career Day, pitch your tent and leave. The companies that are successful with my students reach out to them during their exams, they call them on their birthdays, they call them randomly to find out how they’re doing, they call them when there's activity in the country that they think may adversely affect them.

What we've been doing under my leadership is looking at workforce development, like our project with Google, which started as Howard West. I've tried to convince companies to invest in the education of my students so that they will be better employees.

A lot of my students can’t afford to do an unpaid internship. Even just flying out to California is a concern. Those students now spend an entire academic year being taught by Google engineers. I think that Google has been very impressed with what that has done for workforce development. 

I say to companies, "Look at our curriculum. Look at a course that you think you can influence." What better way to have your company be exposed to my students than in the educational process? You can short-circuit that and create a very different environment for students who may be more skeptical of corporate America.

Next Wednesday, Willy will host Michael Fascitelli, former CEO of Vornado Realty Trust and co-owner of the Milwaukee Bucks. On July 15, he'll host Larry Sabato, founder and director of the UVA Center for Politics.

This feature was produced in collaboration between the Bisnow Branded Content Studio and Walker & Dunlop. Bisnow news staff was not involved in the production of this content.