Swygert, H. Patrick 1943–
H. Patrick Swygert 1943–
In the summer of 1995, H. Patrick Swygert became the fifteenth president of Howard University, the oldest historically Black university in the United States. For Swygert, the appointment was a homecoming as well. Thirty years earlier, he had received his under-graduate degree in history at Howard and also earned a law degree there. His ties to Howard University were strong and deep.
Founded in 1867, Howard is one of only two federally chartered colleges. The university has a long and impressive history of advocacy, and has educated a stellar list of African Americans who have made major contributions to research, to the development of civil rights, and to the arts. Distinguished African Americans who have been associated with Howard include Charles H. Houston, civil rights lawyer from the 1920s; Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall; David Dinkins, the former mayor of New York City; novelists Toni Morrison and Zora Neale Hurston; actress Felicia Rashid and singer Roberta Flack. James Nasbrit Jr., president of Howard during the 1960s, was one of the attorneys who successfully argued Brown vs. Board of Education, the ground-breaking Supreme Court case that ended segregation in schools. The Howard University Law School during the civil rights movement was described as the “West Point of the Civil Rights Movement.”
Swygert became president of Howard University during a difficult period in the school’s history. The university was experiencing severe financial problems, and was reported to be nearly 25 million dollars in debt. To cut operating expenses, over 400 campus employees were laid off in 1994. The Department of Education charged the university with poor financial management, amid reports that four departing administrators had been given overly generous severance packages. The Budget Committee of the House of Representatives voted not to approve the $200 million subsidy to Howard’s annual operating budget. Since this subsidy constituted roughly 40 percent of the university’s budget, Howard faced a full-blown crisis. To make matters worse, Khalid Abdul Muhammad, then a spokesperson for The Nation of Islam, incited a wave of negative publicity for Howard by making anti-Semitic statements in two speeches that he gave at the university in 1994.
The financial crisis and negative press that Howard received led to a dramatic decline in faculty and student morale and a change in leadership. Franklyn G. Jenifer,
Born in philadelphias March 17, 1943, sop of Cos tina and Le roy Huzzy. Married to Sonja E. Branson. Children: Hayward Patrick Jr, Michael B, Education: Howard University, BA, 1965; Howard University, JO, cum laude, 1968.
Career: Worked as a law clerk for Justice William H Hastie; served as a admintstrative assistant for Congressman Charles B. Rangel, 1971-72; Temple University, assistant professor of law, 1972, acting dean of law school, 1977, vice president administrative affairs, 1982-87, executive vice president, 1987; served as general counsel for the Civil service commision 1977-79, president of State University of New York at Albany (SUNY-Albany), 1990-95; president of Howard University, 1995-,
Addresses: Office—Office of the President, Howard University, 2400 Sixth Street NW, Washington, DC 20059.
who had been hired as president of Howard in 1990, resigned. One of the deans was appointed as an interim president while a search for a new president began. According to an article in Jet, the search committee determined to find a new leader “who could pull Howard out of the doldrums.”
Swygert became one of the top candidates to replace Jenifer as president of Howard University. He had applied for the position five years earlier, but Jenifer had been selected. Swygert then became president of the State University of New York at Albany. During his tenure at SUNY-Albany, minority enrollment, the recruitment of minority faculty, and graduation rates for minorities all increased. Swygert also spearheaded a $55 million fund-raising campaign and rekindled alumni interest in the university. Because Howard University depended heavily on Congress for its budget, Swyger’s experience in dealing with government bureaucracy was considered a great strength. Before becoming an educational administrator, he had worked for the Civil Service Commission and had held other government positions. All of these factors led to the selection of Swygert as Howard University’s new president.
Before his inauguration as president of Howard University, Swygert appeared before Congress and appealed for a reinstatement of the federal budget appropriation promising that, within a year, he would produce a plan to revitalize Howard and stabilize it financially. Within two months, he convened the first of fiveretreats in which faculty, students, and staff came together to develop a strategic plan for the university.
The five retreats that Swygert convened resulted in the creation of “The Strategic Framework for Action.” This plan identified a set of core values and delineated a practical set of goals for the university. Key features of the plan included: creating a Center of Excellence in Teaching and Learning and a National Center for African American Heritage and Culture, making computers accessible to all teachers and students, increasing the university’s endowment by soliciting more contributions from Howard alumni, attracting more high-performing African American students to Howard, and making needed repairs to campus buildings.
During the first two years of Swygert’s presidency, implementation of the plan was well under way. In 1997 Swygert announced that 79 National Achievement Scholars had chosen to attend Howard, a clear indication that the school was again attracting top minority high school students. Over seven million dollars was spent to repair and upgrade campus buildings. The Fine Arts building, for example, was extensively renovated, new pianos were purchased, and a “smart” classroom for presentations was built. By early 1998, all faculty members had their own computers and students in each dorm were given access to computers. The percent of alumni contributing to Howard increased from five percent to over 12 percent. Lastly, the school’s debt rating improved from a negative rating to an A+.
Swygert’s management style is designed to be inclusive, not exclusive. He also promoted an air of tolerance. One of Swygert’s former classmates, quoted in a New York Times article, said “He’s a guy who has been elected president of every organization he’s been a member of. He’s a consensus builder.”
Throughout his life, Swygert has developed his leadership abilities. He began his professional career as a clerk for the late Judge William H. Hastie, Chief Justice of the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals, whom Swygert described in an interview with CBB as “a great legal scholar and a man of great character.” When his clerkship was over, Swygert worked first as a law associate in a law firm and then as administrative assistant to New York representative Charles B. Rangel. In 1972 he began a long association with Temple University in Philadelphia, first as assistant professor, then as acting dean of the law school, and vice president of administrative affairs. By 1987, he was an executive vice-president at Temple. He also served as general counsel for the Civil Service Commission and taught law overseas as a visiting professor at Tel Aviv University in Israel, the University of Ghana, and the Hungarian Ministry of Higher Education.
Swygert has taken great interest in the educational status of minorities. As president of SUNY-Albany, he headed a state commission on education in New York. In the final report Swygert wrote,” Our public elementary and secondary schools-with notable exceptions-still sift and sort children along undeniable lines of social class.” Along with other presidents of historically Black colleges and universities, he has spoken out about the erosion of affirmative action in the United States. Swygert is also concerned about the low number of minorities in positions of leader-ship at colleges and universities. From 1980 to 1996, the number of minority candidates pursuing doctoral degrees was quite small. These small numbers ensure that the number of minority faculty and administrators in higher education will continue to be limited unless changes are made.
Swygert has proven to be a capable and effective administrator of Howard University. In an interview for Black issues in Higher Education, he stated,” I think it’s most appropriate that, at Howard University, we never lose sight of the fact that this is an African American institution. It’s an African American institution that was created and charted by the United States Congress to speak to the needs and the aspirations of the larger African American community. That core value is something that has to inform all of our decisions.”
Black Issues in Higher Education, March 5, 1998, p 24.
Jet, May 8, 1995, p. 9.
New York Times, January 15, 1997, p. C22; April 26, 1995, p. A17.
Washington City Paper, February 19-25, 1999, p. 1.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from the Cox News Service at http://www.coxnews.com; the US Department of Education web site at http://www.ed.gov; Howard University “The Strategic Framework for Action” at http://www.howard.edu; a press release from the Office of University Communications at Howard University; and an interview with H. Patrick Swygert on June 11, 1999.
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