Ethelbert Miller: A Sustaining Presence is Forced Out and Everyone Loses


On 3 April, the powers-that-be at Howard University laid off eighty-four staff members, including E. Ethelbert Miller, director of Howard University’s African American Resource Center, who attended Howard and went on to serve the university community for more than forty years.
Ethelbert is a literary activist of wide-ranging commitments and honors: he chairs the Board of Trustees of the Institute for Policy Studies; he is a board member at The Writer’s Center and editor of Poet Lore. He’s a former Chair of the Humanities Council of Washington, D.C., and the author of many books of poetry and memoir. Dearest to my heart, he serves on the National Cabinet of the U.S. Department of Arts and Culture with the title Minister of Sacred Words, offering radical love and generosity of spirit in all he does.
I’m going to suggest what all this may mean (and give you contact information to protest), but first, I’d like to share an excerpt from a letter Reginald Dwayne Betts wrote to the newly appointed President of Howard, Dr. Wayne A.I. Frederick. Betts is a much-lauded poet and memoirist, a former prison inmate who credits Ethelbert with the critical and well-timed caring that enabled him to flourish. You owe it to yourself to read all of his letter, reprinted at Split This Rock.

[M]y affinity for Howard University as an institution begins with Ethelbert Miller. When I received a full tuition academic scholarship to attend Howard University, I wanted to go because I’d read Ethelbert’s memoir. And when the university rescinded my scholarship because I checked a box admitting that I have three felony convictions and spent time in prison, it crushed me. Not just because I wanted to be a Bison — but because the institution fundamentally seemed to respond to me in the exact opposite way that Ethelbert did. And I had always believed that Ethelbert represented all that was great about Howard University. In fact, in the face of that huge personal disappointment, it has only been Ethelbert’s connection to the institution that led to my continued support.
Probably, I should be able to think about this in a way that is not so personal. Probably, I should not think about the disservice that has been done to Ethelbert in a way that makes me talk about myself. But I can’t. At two very important moments of my life Ethelbert Miller was, in very real ways, the voice of the Black community that helped me understand and believe in my own worth. He did this with his presence. And I am fortunate that he did. Because as I have gone on to be accepted by a number largely white institutions, receiving a full tuition scholarship at the University of Maryland, a Radcliffe Fellowship at the Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies, and being admitted into the Yale Law School — as I have gone on to do these things, I do them remembering Ethelbert’s voice asking me if I’ve talked to my dad lately. I remember Ethelbert’s voice talking to me about fatherhood. Helping me to develop myself in a way that I once believed Howard was dedicated to as an institution.

By now, such stories are sadly familiar. You know how it goes. Costs outpace income at an institution of higher learning, and cuts are directed at those lowest in the institutional pecking-order. Some sort of arm’s-length efficiency experts review paperwork without actually knowing any of the lives their red pencils will be affecting; some numeric grid of factors (salary, longevity, who knows what?) is applied to the roster; and eighty-four people have to go. In this story, staff rather than faculty bears the brunt. Consider the publicity factor: few staff members are as likely to muster such illustrious and indignant support as has gathered around Ethelbert. Usually, you can pick them off with impunity.
Indeed, consider any aspect you like, only remember Lily Tomlin’s quip as you do: “No matter how cynical you are, you can’t keep up.” Ethelbert told me that President Frederick reported that not only hadn’t he seen the list of the laid-off, but that he didn’t want to see it now, because he couldn’t afford to allow personal feelings about any of the listed individuals to impede the cost-cutting process.
Howard has cut nearly 300 employees’ jobs since 2013, while enrollment remains roughly the same.
The official university statement by spokeswoman Rachel Mann reflected the same refusal to acknowledge the impact of Howard’s actions:

“The decision to reduce staff is never an easy one,” the statement said. “University leadership carefully evaluated a variety of options before concluding that eliminating these positions was necessary to ensure long-term financial stability for the University. We do not expect this decision to have any adverse impact on student services or their academic studies.”
University officials said the cut did not affect their hospital staff. They declined to elaborate on the types of positions that were cut, and there was no immediate word on the size of the staff remaining on the payroll. Nor did the statement describe in any detail the financial issues driving the cut.

This underscores a trend in higher education, which is to see a university as a species of machine, a factory or corporation employing the same management styles and values as other mechanistic social systems.They cut people before touching executive perks; they devalue the work of those below the executive suites to the point of asserting without evident shame that their absence will not be felt; and the higher purpose and responsibility they exist to serve? Well, perhaps they should ask those laid-off staff members for a refresher course.
Three years after Howard was established in 1867 (and named after the head of the Freedmen’s Bureau), Massachusetts member of Congress George Hoar spoke in the Capitol of the responsibility to educate:

The Republic, founded on the doctrine of the equal right and capacity of all citizens to share in its government, should find the appropriate monuments of its national greatness and the appropriate ornaments of its seat of government not in stately palaces of granite or marble, but in schools, universities and libraries. We have expended nearly thirteen millions dollars to erect and adorn its Capitol…. At the same time nearly two-thirds of the children of this district are unprovided with the means of attending school…. For myself, I would rather exhibit to mankind halls of legislation, plain and cheap, and the results of that legislation apparent in intelligent, educated citizens. I would rather have Congress hold its sessions in a barn or on a hillside, and see the schools of the city models for the civilized world….

Try out something parallel to that message on our contemporary universities crammed with marble halls, luxe sports stadiums, and corporation-branded buildings. Prepare to be dismissed.
Howard is a highly prestigious historically African American university. Its money troubles are complex. It supports a hospital some see as a financial drain. In addition to public and private grants and contributions and tuition income, it receives a special annual federal allocation of more than $220 million. It increasingly competes with other prestige universities offering incentives to students of color to diversify their historically white campuses. Many fingers are pointed to distribute blame for its deficit spending. I’d be glad to point one in the direction of national education policy in general, which suffers from an excess of corporatism and a dearth of humane values. But whatever the cause of deficits, cutting staff is a favorite ploy, because while it doesn’t make the largest financial impact, it leaves the largest public impression that the institution is getting serious about costs, doing the hard thing for the greater good.
I don’t know that Howard’s powers-that-be thought much past that first PR move to its human implications, because Ethelbert learned that he’d been laid off by being locked out of his university computer and email. More than a week later, he heard something about severance terms, woefully inadequate. Howard’s decision should be reversed. If that can’t be accomplished, the terms should be commensurate with the offense they have given in laying Ethelbert off. As he told the Washington Post:

Miller said he holds no grudge against Frederick, who was named president last summer in a time of financial challenges at the university and its hospital. “I wish the guy well,” Miller said. “This is a guy who really loves the university. I want him to do well.” But Miller said the university has mishandled his situation because he has given a lot to Howard.
“I’m not going to be modest,” he said. “You want to talk about my contributions to the university? Let’s get started. … Forty years. You do the math: What should I get in terms of severance? … I don’t want to go from being a literary activist to being a literary sharecropper.”

Contact Howard University President Wayne A.I. Frederick via email at or by phone at 202-806-2500. His Twitter handle is @WFrederickMD.
Chuck Jackson sings “Any Day Now.” The anthem President Frederick should be singing. Ethelbert was fifteen when this hit the charts; I have an idea he may remember it.
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