Howard University announced last week that it will invest $785 million in new construction and renovations over the next four years, a record-breaking investment in capital projects for the historically black university.
The planned new building includes a complex for the university’s STEM programs and an academic building that will house the Chadwick Boseman School of Fine Arts and the Cathy Hughes School of Communications. An existing building will be renovated to house the college of education and a state-approved middle school — a plan that has some historical significance, said Wayne Frederick, Howard’s president. Black teachers in Washington, DC were trained in this building during the segregation.
The university will also build a brand new health sciences complex, which will include medical school and dental school, nursing school and other health programs. It will be attached to a new hospital that will cost another $615 million, Frederick said.
“This is a turning point in the history of our institution,” Frederick said in a statement. “Due to the vastly improved financial situation that we have worked so hard for, the condition of the university has never been stronger.”
Howard’s landmark investment is remarkable for any college or university, said Pete Zuraw, vice president of market strategy at Gordian, a building and construction data company. Aside from some of the nation’s wealthiest institutions, most universities Howard’s size — the institution enrolls about 7,800 students — can’t afford such construction investments. Such an investment is even rarer for HBCUs, many of which cannot afford to repair existing facilities, let alone construct new buildings, Zuraw said.
Frederick said the university plans to break ground on the first project later this year and he hopes all new construction will be complete by 2026.
To fund the projects, Howard recently issued a $300 million bond, Frederick said. The university will also receive $200 million from the HBCU Capital Funding Program, a federal initiative aimed at providing HBCUs with funds for the repair, renovation, and construction of campus facilities. Another $145 million will come from income from leased properties, and the university just started a fundraiser to raise the remaining $140 million — a goal Frederick expects the university will surpass.
In particular, the new investment plans do not include funds for the repair of student housing. Student protesters slammed the Howard government last autumn for renting substandard housing, occupying Blackburn Student Center for a month and making demands on university leaders – including cleaning up the mold found in some student accommodation.
But home renovations aren’t as urgent as other infrastructure needs, Frederick said. Howard’s college housing infrastructure is relatively new — 90 percent of college housing is five years old or younger, he said.
“We believe these buildings are still in very good condition,” he said. “Our intention in our campus master plan is to bring more rooms onto campus.”
HBCU presidents and other college officials have been calling for more infrastructure funding for their institutions for years, and lawmakers are starting to listen: The Department of Education launched the HBCU equity funding program. Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee included $318 million in his budget for capital projects at Tennessee State University — the beginnings of reparations for chronic state underfunding. Former Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam requested $277 million for operating and building HBCUs last year. A number of HBCUs have also received significant philanthropic support from MacKenzie Scott and other wealthy philanthropists who have earmarked some institutions for construction projects and delayed maintenance.
But the money HBCUs need to address their deferred maintenance and fund new builds dwarfs the investments of recent years, said David Sheppard, chief legal officer at the Thurgood Marshall College Fund.
A 2018 Government Accountability Office study found that 46 percent of buildings in HBCUs need repair or replacement. A separate study by TMCF found that, on average, HBCUs take about $81 million each to resolve delayed maintenance issues, Sheppard said. The institutions needed an average of 120 million dollars each for the new building. And those are probably low estimates, according to Sheppard.
“The reality is that the vast, vast majority of our institutions are not as well positioned as Howard to make these types of necessary investments in their campuses,” Sheppard said. “You want to be there, believe me. I’m sure they’re also looking forward to the day they can issue a press release stating they’re making these types of infrastructure investments on their respective campuses… but I’m afraid that’s not the story most of our institutions, you have the luxury of saying it here.”