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What Howard University's Upswing Means For Other Historically Black Colleges

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Students return to classes at Howard University on Monday, and they're arriving at a high point for the school. This summer, journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones joined the faculty as its inaugural Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Reporting (ph). And that comes on the heels of the swearing-in of Howard alum Kamala Harris as vice president and record donations. Debbie Truong of member station WAMU explores what it means for Howard and other historically Black colleges.

DEBBIE TRUONG, BYLINE: After Howard announced the hiring of Nikole Hannah-Jones in July, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and MacArthur genius-winner shared a clearer vision for her plans.

NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES: What I'm hoping to do is to bolster journalism that is infused with accountability, journalism that I think this moment requires in our democracy but also that brings in that historical context that is missing.

TRUONG: She felt Howard was a natural home for the Center for Journalism and Democracy, a center she will establish to strengthen investigative journalism at HBCUs.

HANNAH-JONES: Black journalists have an understanding that our democracy is very fragile, that our government will not necessarily always vindicate the rights of marginalized people.

TRUONG: Gracie Lawson-Borders is the dean of the Cathy Hughes School of Communications, which houses Howard's journalism program. She notes the school was founded in 1971, three years after the landmark report from the Kerner Commission concluded the country was, quote, "moving toward two societies, one Black, one white - separate and unequal."

GRACIE LAWSON-BORDERS: Well, our history is steeped in social justice and truth in service.

TRUONG: There's been much cause for celebration outside the journalism program, too. Ta-Nehisi Coates will also join Howard's faculty in the English department. Philanthropies have also donated millions in recent years, including $40 million from MacKenzie Scott, the largest gift from a single donor in Howard's history.

WAYNE A I FREDERICK: There's several aspects of what we've been doing as a university in terms of producing results, and I think now you see the results of that.

TRUONG: That's Howard's president, Wayne A. I. Frederick. He says the investments are boosting student interest. Andre Perry is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who studies race and education. He says Howard and other HBCUs are seeing more interest from Black academics, too.

ANDRE PERRY: It's a place where they can have conversations about the world around them and about how they're experiencing the world with others who also share those experiences.

TRUONG: Howard receives more than $200 million in federal money each year, but Perry says HBCUs in general still face structural inequities when it comes to federal funding that lead to fewer opportunities for research and development. At Howard, the attention has brought scrutiny, too. In June, actress Phylicia Rashad, the newly named dean of the Chadwick A. Boseman College of Fine Arts, was criticized after her tweet celebrating a court's decision to overturn Bill Cosby's sexual assault conviction. Rashad, Cosby's wife on "The Cosby Show," later apologized.

And in July, an anonymous letter addressed to Hannah-Jones drew attention to the standoff between the university and the union representing 110 non-tenure-track faculty. It called for higher pay and urged an end to a rule that forbids lecturers to remain employed at Howard beyond seven years. Howard officials say it has created ways for lecturers to move into positions without caps. But Cyrus Hampton, a master instructor in the English department and a Howard graduate, says those opportunities are limited.

CYRUS HAMPTON: You sort of know as a fact you can only build and grow so much.

TRUONG: Still, the momentum behind the university is palpable. Third-year student Jordyn Allen says HBCUs don't often get the same mainstream attention as predominantly white institutions.

JORDYN ALLEN: It's very difficult to compare an HBCU to a Harvard University for a student who's only ever heard Harvard University and that is their goal because they don't even know that a Howard or a Spelman or a Hampton exists.

TRUONG: Allen says HBCUs have always known their value. She's glad others are finally seeing it, too.

For NPR News, I'm Debbie Truong.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAN THE AUTOMATOR'S "FULL STAR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.