Swygert, H. Patrick

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H. Patrick Swygert

College president

By 2005 attorney H. Patrick Swygert had served as Howard University's president for over a decade but his relationship with the university was even longer, spanning over forty years. Born March 17, 1943, in Philadelphia, Swygert was the seventh of fourteen children born to Gustina Huzzy and Leroy Swygert. The south Philadelphia working-class community where he grew up was comprised of African Americans, Irish, Jews, and Italians. Young Swygert had to demonstrate great determination as a youth to make something of himself. He is quoted in a 1996 Washington Post profile as saying, "When you are the seventh son, it's difficult to be shy and retiring because you don't get anything done that way."

According to Post reporter Valerie Strauss in the 1996 profile, when Swygert entered Howard University as a freshman in the fall 1961, he knew what he wanted to achieve and was willing to work his way through school as a baker and waiter in order to attain his goal. His father had died a year before, and his mother had thirteen other children to raise. Swygert fell in love with Howard University in particular and with education in general. In Strauss's profile, Swygert explained his love affair with his alma mater: "the campus community gave me a home and to a large extent raised me." He added: "it is difficult for me to see my life without Howard." Swygert recollected being overwhelmed soon after he arrived as a freshman on campus as he witnessed a debate between nonviolent civil rights activist Bayard Rustin and black Muslim leader Malcolm X. The debaters were both brilliant and articulate. For Swygert this represented the beginning of an exciting and challenging educational experience. Howard provided him with knowledge and appreciation of African and African American culture hitherto unknown to him. After Swygert completed his first degree at Howard in 1965, a bachelor of arts in history, he immediately enrolled in the Howard University School of Law from which he graduated cum laude in 1968. During his years at Howard, Swygert took seriously the advice of Howard president James M. Nabrit to educate himself not just for personal gain but for the higher purpose of serving others. In a 1999 Capstone article, Swygert said that he was taught to "seek the truth" and "sow it in service."

Swygert held several professional jobs before he found himself drawn again into academia. He served from 1968 to 1969 as a law clerk to Chief Judge William H. Hastie, of the Third United States Circuit Court of Appeals. Hastie, a graduate of Harvard Law School, was a former dean of Howard University Law School. In 1970 Swygert married Sonja J. Branson. (The union lasted thirty-three years and produced two sons, Hayward Patrick Jr., and Michael Branson.) For the year 1970–71 Swygert was an associate of Debevoise, Plimpton, Lyons & Gates, a New York-based corporate law firm. Next, he worked a year as an administrative assistant to New York Congressman Charles B. Rangel.


Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on March 17
Enters Howard University
Receives B.A. in history from Howard University; enters Howard University Law School
Graduates cum laude from Howard University Law School; serves as law clerk to Chief Judge William H. Hastie, Federal Court of Appeals
Serves as associate of New York-based corporate law firm Debevoise, Plimpton, Lyons & Gates
Serves as administrative assistant to Congressman Charles B. Rangel
Holds assistant professorship of law, Temple University School Law
Serves as general counsel, U.S. Civil Service Commission
Becomes Temple University School of Law Counsel and professor of law
Executive vice president for administration, temple University
Becomes president of the State University of New York at Albany
Becomes president of Howard University
Forms partnership between Howard University and Fannie Mae to revitalize the LeDroit Park neighborhood around the campus
Appointed by President Bill Clinton as chair of a branch of BusinessLING (Learning, Information, Networking and Collaboration)
Appointed to a two-year term as chair of the HBCU Capital Financing Board
Invites the historic Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History to move lit offices to Howard's campus

For five years (1972–77) Swygert returned to his first love—academia—as an assistant professor of law at Temple University School of Law in his hometown, Philadelphia. He served a short stint—1977 to 1979—as general counsel of the U.S. Civil Service Commission and Special Counsel to the Merit Systems Protection Board in 1979. Swygert was back at Temple from 1980 to 1982 as special counsel to the university president and professor of law. He served as vice president for university administration at Temple University from 1982 to 1987 and executive vice president from 1987 to 1990. Peter Liacouras, Temple University president, called Swygert an exceptional administrator who was able to accomplish his goals without sacrificing his ideals. Swygert intermittently spoke and taught abroad in Israel, Ghana, Egypt, Hungary, Greece and Italy. He is a member of the bars of the District of Columbia, Pennsylvania, and New York.

University Administration

In 1990 trustees of Howard University were recruiting a new president, as were the regents of the State University of New York (SUNY) at Albany. Since Swygert had not served as president of any other university, the Howard trustees passed over him, but he was selected as president of SUNY-Albany, a school with a student body of 17,000. Swygert served at SUNY-Albany for five years, 1990 to 1995. Students, faculty, and administrators lauded him for his fairness and accomplishments during this period. He spearheaded a $55 million capital campaign; increased minority enrollment from 14 to 25 percent; won funding for a new technology research center; and defused a campus hostage situation as well as a potentially volatile racial incident on campus with tact; moved the athletic program from Division 111 to Division 11; built a vast student recreation area; installed cable TV and voice mail in the dormitories; oversaw the construction of a child care center; and in general showed himself to be an extremely competent administrator. Both SUNY-Albany academics and oft-overlooked university staff members congratulated Swygert for treating all as equals and showing his appreciation for all members of the university community. Swygert proved himself to be an apt student in the development of corporate relations with the academic community. In 2002 Swygert received the Medallion of the University Award from SUNY-Albany, the highest honor awarded by that institution.

Howard University President

Meanwhile, things were not going well at Howard University. Financial shortfalls; racial tensions; enrollment reductions; and faculty, staff, and student morale problems plagued the campus. The university president resigned, and Howard trustees began to look for a new president in the spring of 1995. Out of a pool that began with three hundred applicants, the trustees unanimously approved H. Patrick Swygert as the fifteenth president of the university. Howard's Board of Trustees' chairman, Wayman F. Smith II, is quoted in the April 23, 1995 Washington Post article: "Patrick Swygert has a proven track record in the academic world, characterized by the highest level of personal integrity and ethical standards." Funding concerns, a hospital that was "hemorrhaging money," according to another Washington Post article, dated May 2, 1995, and a myriad of other problems faced the new president. Although Howard had a $500 million budget, Swygert faced a $7 million shortfall which could be addressed most effectively by a reduction in force. "I had no honeymoon when I got to Howard," Swygert said for the Strauss profile. "I didn't anticipate one, I didn't get one. But we'll have a great marriage."

The university itself has an interesting history. Named after Union general and founder Oliver Otis Howard, Howard University—dubbed in its early years as "the capstone of Negro education"—was founded in 1867. Howard, who served as the director of the Freedmen's Bureau, considered education one of the key functions of his agency. Howard's mission was to provide teacher and ministerial education for all but especially for freeborn and emancipated African Americans. To help with the university's support, the U.S. Congress awarded Howard University a special appropriation in 1879 and amended Howard University's charter in 1928 to authorize a yearly federal appropriation for construction, development, improvement, and maintenance of the university. Fifty-five percent of Howard's budget continued in the early 2000s to be provided by federal government funding. Howard University has produced American greats such as jurist Thurgood Marshall, diplomat Ralph Bunche, philosopher Alaine Locke, actress Debbie Allen, opera singer Jessye Norman, and presidential cabinet member Patricia Roberts Harris.

Howard was one of over a hundred educational institutions founded in the decade just after the Civil War to benefit newly freed slaves. These institutions are collectively called historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). For almost one hundred years HBCUs attracted the most academically proficient African American students because few other institutions of higher education would open their doors to them. The 1954 Brown v. Board of Education U.S. Supreme Court decision and subsequent civil rights legislation opened doors for African American students, many of which had never been open to them before. This change presented two types of challenges for HBCUs. The most obvious was that there was suddenly greater competition for the best African American students, and the best and brightest professors of color were slowly being lured away by majority-white institutions. This forced financially strapped HBCUs to be more competitive with scholarships, salaries, and programs. HBCUs had to find ways to increase their funding just to be competitive. In the book I'll Find a Way or Make One: A Tribute to Historically Black Colleges and Universities, authors Juan Williams and Dwayne Ashley provide a list of twenty African American colleges and junior colleges that simply had to close their doors due to "low enrollment and lack of financial support." Other HBCUs had to spend much more time to raise the resources their institutions needed. By the 1990s when Swygert became Howard president, the institution was the only HBCU listed among the nation's eighty-eight Research I universities. By 1996 Howard had awarded almost 84,000 degrees during its long and illustrious history. The university ranked first in the nation in the number of Ph.D.s conferred upon African American students.

When Swygert became president, university enrollment was just over 10,000 students in sixteen schools and colleges located on four campuses. In 1996 about 13 percent of the students were from the District of Columbia, 74 percent were from other states, 11 percent were international students representing 104 countries, and 5 per-cent were international students who were permanent U.S. residents. Just over 2,200 students were members of the graduating class of 1996. The endowment was almost $160 million, the operating budget was $505 million, and the university staff numbered almost 4,000. Howard administrators stated that the university's vision was to be a comprehensive research institution demonstrating excellence in instruction, research, and service, with an ongoing commitment to educating youth. The institution continued to focus on African Americans and other people of color, particularly for leadership and service to the nation and the world.

Swygert and his staff designed a five-year plan for the university. The president articulated several challenges for HBCUs in the March 1998 edition of Black Issues in Higher Education. He was aware that high-scoring African American students were actively recruited by majority-white universities—after all, that was something he did successfully at SUNY-Albany—but he did not agree that students got a better education at these institutions than they did at Howard. He emphasized that in order to provide the quality education good students desired, he had to recruit talented faculty members and be able to pay them competitive salaries. He promised the faculty that Howard would do its best to provide them with the tools of their trade, including personal computers for every faculty member. Swygert was particularly interested in supplying the university community with a "technologically rich" environment.

The 2000 Howard University Annual Report demonstrates that in Swygert's first few years as the university chief administrator Howard underwent substantive growth and development, including the creation of the Louis Stokes Heath Sciences Library, a new School of Law Library, and the University's iLab. The iLab is a technology learning center comprising more than 200 computer workstations, distance learning classrooms, and a Webcasting facility. The iLab station, open-twenty-four hours a day, has voice, data, and video capabilities. Students have the ability to connect with the Internet without using a telephone line. Additionally, Oracle Corp. donated four thousand workstations for computer centers in the residence halls. Rapid changes in technological capabilities also led to an increase in distance learning programs available at the university.

LeDroit Park

Swygert was also instrumental in forming a unique partnership in 1997 between Howard University and Fannie Mae to revitalize the LeDroit Park neighborhood around the campus. By the time Swygert became president the neighborhoods surrounding the university had numerous vacant and abandoned houses. In the LeDroit Park area ninety buildings comprising 18 percent of the residential properties were either vacant or abandoned. Earlier university administrators had hoped to expand the campus into the community because the university owned many of these buildings, most of which are on the National Register of Historic Places.

Swygert decided not to expand the campus in that direction and began to work with the residents of the surrounding community. The plan was to help revitalize the businesses on streets adjoining the campus and give the homes facelifts. With Fannie Mae, Howard began renovating the homes, most of which are narrow town houses, and offered them for purchase on easy terms to university faculty and staff members. Fannie Mae offered low-interest financing. Howard helped keep the housing prices low by writing off many of the renovation costs. One of the homes in the historic community belonged to Robert Heberton Terrell and his wife Mary Church Terrell. Robert Terrell was a Harvard-educated lawyer who taught in Howard's Law School and served as a municipal court judge. Mary Church, who had two degrees from Oberlin, was an educator, feminist, celebrated clubwoman, and indefatigable civil rights advocate. Howard and the community together transformed the Terrell house into a museum. Other African Americans of note who lived in the LeDroit Park community included Senator Edward Brooke, diplomat Ralph Bunche, U. S. Army General Benjamin O. Davis Sr., and Washington, D.C. mayor Walter Washington.

National and International Activities

Swygert's role as president of what many consider to the foremost HBCU in the United States caused him to be at the forefront of many initiatives relating to African Americans. President Bill Clinton appointed Swygert as chair of a branch of BusinessLINC (Learning, Information, Networking and Collaboration) in 1999. BusinessLINC was a partnership with the U.S. business community that encouraged large businesses to work with and mentor small business owners and entrepreneurs. The goal of BusinessLINC was to stimulate business-to-business relationships, including one-on-one technical advice and consulting, classroom and group training, peer group and consulting strategic alliances, and development of suppliers and new sales channels. In 2002, U. S. secretary of education Roderick R. Paige appointed Swygert to a two-year term as chair of the HBCU Capital Financing Board. A Department of Education press release dated April 22, 2002 explained that "the capital financing program provides financial insurance through a designated bonding authority to guarantee academic construction loans to qualified HBCUs." Swygert was later reappointed to the board, extending his term to 2007. During his first term the board accessed new loan amounts totaling close to $87 million, more than the five previous years combined. A Howard University press release stated that "the fiscal year, 2003 to 2004, was the most successful in the program's history, with five loans to five institutions, totaling nearly fifty-five million dollars."

In addition to the HBCU Capital Financing Board, Swygert is a member of a number of corporate boards and national committees, including Fannie Mae; United Technologies Corporation in Hartford; the Hartford Financial Services Group, Inc.; and the Federal Security Agency. He has been active in the development of literacy and reading programs in the community and in historical preservation programs. He has tirelessly worked to provide scholarship opportunities for students and to provide employment doors for graduates. Swygert invited the historic Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History, founded by Carter G. Woodson, to move its offices to Howard's campus. The move took place in 2003 and, in addition to daily business, the association holds it annual African American History Month luncheon at Howard's Blackburn Student Center in February. The Swygert administration supported or spearheaded other historical initiatives, including a Freedman's Bureau papers project and a registry of African American Civil War soldiers and sailors. Swygert worked on a commission to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Brown decision and helped the Smithsonian Institute to select a director for the proposed African American history museum. In the 2005–06 academic year the university established The Howard University Public Charter Middle School of Mathematics and Science. It is the first charter middle school in the city to be established by a university.

Swygert has received awards for being an outstanding educator, administrator, and freedom fighter from various groups, including the Congressional Black Caucus, the National Conference for Community and Justice, and the government of the District of Columbia. Swygert has also received several honorary degrees.



Donnelly, Rory. "H. Patrick Swygert." In Contemporary Black Biography. Vol. 22. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Gale Group, 1999.

Jackson, Cynthia L., and Eleanor F. Nunn. Historically Black Colleges and Universities: A Reference Handbook. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, 2003.

Who's Who among African Americans. 18th ed. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Thomson Gale, 2005.

Williams, Juan, and Dwayne Ashley. I'll Find a Way or Make One: A Tribute to Historically Black Colleges and Universities. New York: HarperCollins, 2004.


Hardcastle, James R. "Howard University Looks to Its Neighbors." New York Times, 4 April 1999.

Howard University Annual Report, 2000. Washington, D.C.: Howard University, 2001.

Strauss, Valerie. "The Education of Howard: The President Who Does It All for U. with Humor." Washington Post, 3 October 1996.

――――. "Friends and Foes Alike Praise Howard U.'s New Leader." Washington Post, 2 May 1995.

Swygert, H. Patrick. "Howard 101: Learning to Lead." Capstone, 14 August 1999.

Thomas-Lester, Avis. "Alumnus Named President of Beleaguered Howard U." Washington Post, 23 April 1995.


"Charting a Black Research Agenda: An Interview with H. Patrick Swygert, Esq., President of Howard University." Black Issues in Higher Education, March 1998. (Accessed 14 October 2005).

"H. Patrick Swygert: Fifteenth President of the University. www.howard.edu/president/biography.asp (Accessed 14 October 2005).

"Howard President Swygert Appointed HBCU Capital Financing Board Chairman," 22 April 2002 Press Release, Department of Education.www.ed.gov/print/news/pressreleases/2002/04/04222002.html (Accessed 17 October 2005).

Howard University. "The Mission." 1999 (Accessed 14 October 2005).

Howard University. "Strategic Framework for Action." 1996. www.howard.edu/president/Strategic Framework (Accessed 20 October 2005).

"President Clinton and Vice President Gore Announce BusinessLINC—A Major National Effort Building on the Administration's New Markets Initiative." The White House, Press Release, August 1999. http://clinton6.nara.gov/1999/08/1999-08-10-fact-sheet-on-businesslinc.html(Accessed 14 October 2005).

"President Swygert Reappointed Chair of HBCU Financing Board." Howard University Announcement, 2001. http:/howard.edu/newsevents/anouncements/04-11-17swygert.htm (Accessed 19 October 2005).

                                    Debra Newman Ham