Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) continue to play a critical role in training and advancing the next generation of leaders.

Dr. Wayne Frederick, president of Howard University, joins The Daily Signal Podcast to discuss how HBCUs are advancing higher education. He also shares his personal story of a dual career in medicine and academia. Listen to the podcast or read the lightly edited transcript below. 

Rachel del Guidice: We’re joined today on The Daily Signal Podcast by Dr. Wayne Frederick. He’s president of Howard University. Dr. Frederick, thank you so much for being with us today.

Dr. Wayne Frederick: Oh, my pleasure. Thanks for having me.

del Guidice: Can you start off by telling us a little bit about how you ended up serving as president of Howard?

Frederick: So, I’m a triple alum, and although it’s not popular for me to say it with my team, I’m a reluctant university president. I became the provost at Howard University in 2012, and about 15 months later, the president announced that he was going to retire and I was actually to be the interim. I served as interim during the search process and then became the president.

del Guidice: You are also a distinguished researcher and a surgeon and the author of numerous peer-reviewed articles, different book chapters, abstracts, and editorials. Where did your interest in medicine start?

Frederick: I actually have sickle cell and I came to Howard University because of that. Howard had a Sickle Cell Center and so I came here partly because of the care that I would get while I was in school, and then also an interest in becoming a physician, obviously.

That interest really just grew as well throughout my childhood because my mother was a nurse as well. So between being hospitalized, seeing her good work, and bringing a surgical mask home, I think it probably got into my subconscious.

del Guidice: And your role at Howard as president, you’re very passionate about inclusivity, workforce development, and diversifying the pipeline. Can you tell us a little bit about your approach here with these goals?

Frederick: Yeah, I think it’s critical for workforce development in particular. I think our higher ed insecure institutions need to be closer to our industries so that we are meeting their needs in terms of how we prepare our graduates. So we’ve done a few things on that front in which we have actually sent our students out to receive that didactic education in those environments.

One example is Howard West, where our students went out and they were co-taught by Google engineers and Howard faculty and they were co-taught very technical classes like algorithms, machine learning, artificial intelligence, etc. And we think that’s critical.

We’re doing it now again with Howard Entertainment. We have lots of our alum who are in the industry, more of them getting on the side of deciding what type of movies and stories should be told. And so we decided that we were going to take a chance there as well.

I currently have students out at Amazon Studios in Hollywood. They’re being co-taught, again, by Amazon studio executives and industry leaders, as well as our Howard faculty.

This program’s a little different because whereas with Howard West we had students primarily from the computer science program, these students are coming from the law school, the business school, school of communications, and fine arts.

So the other thing that we’re trying to do is to really build more of an interdisciplinary approach to what students need and to the exposure so they can really learn what some of the other colleagues are learning currently.

del Guidice: At Howard you have a tuition rebate program where students who, if they graduate in three years, they can earn some money back. Can you tell us about that program?

Frederick: Sure. We started a tuition rebate program about five years ago. The way it works is that all direct payments that you make in your last semester, we will refund you 50% of those direct payments if you graduate on time or early. And that is really to bring the issue of making sure the students matriculate on time to decrease the student debt.

I think oftentimes we talk about student debt, but we talk about a graduation rate that’s a six-year graduation rate. And we really are trying to get students and their families to think about this differently and to recognize that the more time that they cut off of the education, you’re actually cutting off cost, and therefore you’re not going to take out a loan against that cost. And so yes, student indebtedness could really decrease.

We have students or families really taking advantage of that. It’s not in isolation because we also couple it with other initiatives to encourage students to take at least 15 credits a semester. Also, we allow students to go to summer school for six and take six credits for free as well. All part of the process to emphasize to them that we want them to get out in three or four years.

del Guidice: Howard also offers summer training opportunities, and I know you’ve mentioned talking about strengthening ROTC on campus. Can you talk about some of those different opportunities for students that Howard tries to give them?

Frederick: We definitely try to expose students to summer internships in a large manner. With ROTC in particular, they have spearheaded a leadership minor on campus so we’re trying to get [it] adopted to all the entire campus.

I think especially what ROTC does around leadership, around teaching students about discipline, about preparing candidates for how they can work within teams, I think is critical for the workforce as well. I think it can be applied in a lot of what we do in the other technical disciplines that we teach.

So we really are relaunching that leadership minor and having ROTC really take the lead on the actual courses and the didactics involved in that. And we think that’s absolutely critical.

del Guidice: So you’ve been a board member for the board of advisers for the White House’s Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities since May 2016. What has it been like to be part of the HBCU board, and what have you learned about the state of HBCUs in that role?

Frederick: In that role we get a lot of information and data on how my 104 brother and sister institutions are doing in terms of their financial health, in terms of their graduation rates, those types of things. It also exposes us to industry leaders that we can partner with, and I think our looking at where that is as important.

And then I think the most important thing is really the state of the students who are coming there and what they’re getting and where we need to add resources and what those opportunities are.

There’s a lot of opportunity to partner with the government, as an example, and so getting to understand who are the agencies that have programs that would like to see more Howard participation I think is critical. So we are continuing to make sure that that gets advanced.

I’m no longer on that board, but I still get to attend the meetings as university president when the White House initiative puts on their conferences. And I think that those conferences have been getting better and better in terms of the data and information that we’ve been getting.

del Guidice: Well, you recently spoke here at The Heritage Foundation. You were talking about the White House Initiative on HBCUs. What are some ways that you see HBCUs can be better supported?

Frederick: I think charity begins at home and we have to really tap into our alum who have done well. Our alum tend to go back into underserved communities and really give a lot of service. And unfortunately, when we talk about alumni giving, we talk about dollars and cents, but the reality is the alums of HBCUs provide a lot of service to this country, especially in underserved communities.

I think we have to figure out a way to start tying that back to the activity that occurs at our institutions. That’s one way.

And then the second thing is making sure that we have an appropriate narrative about our institutions.

The data is there to show that at least a fifth of all of the African Americans who graduate in this country graduate from an HBCU with a bachelor’s degree. When you compare that to the number of institutions in terms of a percentage that we make up, we only account for 3% of all the higher ed institutions in this country.

So we’re punching well above our weight and I think we have to make sure that we’re getting that narrative out there and making everyone realize the importance because I think once you display what that importance is, it’s a natural next step to think about making the investment.

del Guidice: Going back to your experience in health care, you received the National Association of Health Services Executives’ Congressional Black Caucus Distinguished Leadership Award, a congressional citation for distinguished service. Given your experience in the health care industry, [where is there] room you see for improvement there?

Frederick: Right here in the district you have eight wards and, unfortunately, in Ward 7 and 8 you can’t deliver a baby if you’re a pregnant woman. And because of where we have our acute care hospitals, you can actually only deliver a baby in three of the eight wards in the city, and that in the nation’s capital is an absolute travesty, especially for the women in Ward 7 and 8 because from a transportation point of view, they have the longest distance to travel.

Some of us may simply think, “Oh, you can get in an Uber, the convenience of those things.” If you’re making the minimum wage, spending $30 something, $40 something to come across the city for prenatal care, even if you take public transportation, which obviously is going to be less expensive, the length of time it takes to do that? If you have other kids, the childcare needs that you have to set up or have to take them with you. So it becomes very complicated.

And when you look at maternal mortality rates, the district actually is higher than a lot of Third World countries. So there is a massive issue with respect to health care disparities in general.

We talk a lot about the fact that a sixth of our GDP [gross domestic product] is spent on health care. And I would say that a lot of that is spent in the last couple of years of life as opposed to being spent on preventative measures, or on doing things that would help.

You have two major grocery stores in Ward 7 and 8. That’s 770,000 citizens. There’s some wards here, you can’t walk a block without running into another major grocery on the other side of town. And again, that means that if you have a food desert, people are not going to have healthy choices and, therefore, they’re not going to be healthy and they are going to have worse health care outcomes.

So there’s several things that we could do, but we must recognize that health, the social determinants of health, are becoming increasingly important in terms of what we do and that the least of us really is going to help us understand what the burden of the finances are, in terms of what we spend as a country on health care.

So if we tie those two things, if you were to make an economic argument, I think it’s clearly there in front of us, and it’s one that we should grasp.

del Guidice: Going back to education as president of the university, and given all the experience you’ve had in higher education, what are some ways you think our country could do better when it comes to education?

Frederick: I think it starts early, obviously, early childhood education. There’s data that shows that the earlier we expose kids to education, to form an education, the better they are going to perform. And so getting that into all our communities, I think, is critical.

I think when we get to K through 12 we have to look at equity around resources and make sure that there’s appropriate distribution of those resources, especially when it comes to public school teachers. We value them, but we don’t pay them the way we value them. And I think we have to look at some type of a federal movement to look at changing what we pay our teachers.

When it comes to higher ed, I think we have to get out of the business of asking students about their majors. I think we need to be asking students about their mission. The young people who are coming to our institutions today are not as concerned about the myopic focus of whatever that major is. They have a variety of interests and I think we have to be more fleet-footed as higher ed institutions in terms of creating that.

So a student who comes to us who wants to be a physician but has an interest in music, we’ve got to create a program that suits them. Instead of saying to them, “Well, you have to do pre-med and you can’t participate in these music things you want to do,” and they have to cut that off. So I think we have to push that very differently.

del Guidice: Given all of your years in higher education, all the students that you’ve spoken to, you’ve mentored, are there any personal stories or memories you can share where you’ve had a significant impact on a student that you’ve worked with or even your own experience where there have been people in your own life who have mentored you? Is there something that you look back to and say, “This is why I do what I do”?

Frederick: Yeah. I see myself as a portal, so it’s hard for me to talk about the impact I’ve had on someone else. But definitely I’ve been the beneficiary of mentors.

Dr. LaSalle Leffall was the chairman of surgery at Howard University for some 25 years. He was born in the South, grew up in a small town in Quincy, Florida, and attended Florida A&M college at the age of 15. He would graduate at the age of 18 with one B on his transcript, but could only apply to two medical schools in this country and didn’t get into either one. One of them was Howard.

His university president would contact Howard’s president and convince them to take him. He would then go on to graduate No. 1 in his class, go on to become the first black president of the American College of Surgeons, the first black president of the American Cancer Society, and you name it, I mean, he broke every glass ceiling you could as a surgeon in this country.

I say that because he led by example, and he was my mentor until his passing last year. Everything he did, he dipped it in excellence.

He had a simple saying that he inherited from Charles Drew, and that is that “Excellence of performance will transcend all artificial barriers created by men.” And I think to this day, that still holds true and it’s still a guiding light for how I try to conduct myself in my role as Howard’s president.

del Guidice: Well, Dr. Frederick, thank you so much for being with us today on The Daily Signal Podcast.

Frederick: Thank you.