News & Politics

Howard University President Wayne Frederick: The Washingtonian Interview

A surgeon navigates a historic school through pandemic and gentrification

Howard University president Wayne A.I. Frederick Photograph by Jeff Elkins

Wayne A.I. Frederick came to Howard University from his native Trinidad at just 16. At 42, he became the school’s president. In the intervening years, he’d built a career as a physician, which made him an odd choice to lead a financial turnaround. But now, amid a catastrophic pandemic and dizzying local gentrification, his medical background—and his long connection to the community—seems to fit the moment.

Not that president is his only job. Frederick is also a surgeon at the university’s hospital, meaning that if you go in for an operation, the guy wielding the scalpel might be the guy who runs the place.

You were 16 when you showed up in Washington, DC, in the ’80s to start college. What was that like?

My mom and I traveled to New York [from Trinidad]. At that time, we had family in Brooklyn. We stayed there for a week, and then we made the journey down to DC. It was exhilarating. The first time I set foot on this campus—the energy, the welcoming was incredible. And [with me] having sickle cell and my mom being a nurse, it was also terrifying for her, as I would come to understand the night before she left. She was absolutely an emotional wreck. She was crying, and she offered to go in and withdraw the money and we’d get back on the plane.

Now, as I look back, that seems crazy. But that’s why I think Howard is such a special place, because it took me in and provided me with that family. I never felt unwelcome. I tell people all the time I feel like I’m from DC because I came here so young.

Where did you live?

I had no clue what I was doing. I didn’t apply for housing on time, so I actually lived in Brookland. I lived on the corner of 13th and Jackson in Northeast DC in a house with some other guys. I caught the H2/H4 bus across town.

You were also a foreign student. Your experiences coming from Trinidad were fairly different than the ones your classmates might have had.

Yeah, you know, that’s a very good point. I grew up in a country where the physicians looked like me. My grandfather was a lawyer after being a school principal. My mom was a nurse. My father, who died right before my third birthday, was a police officer. Everybody I saw in any position of authority looked like me. So that was never really an issue, and then I came here. I learned a lot about the African American experience.

I was amazed at how different everybody was. The kids from California were all into Tupac, and the kids from Brooklyn were all into LL Cool J and Biggie. It was the culture, the fact that it was so different, the fact that it was so vast—and the fact that African Americans, who to me were so much a fabric of the society, were also so marginalized. And learning about history, and about the contemporary experience at the same time, was also very enlightening.

That was also a time when this city was rocked by a drug war that had major racial disparities and violence. Then you come back in 2013 and you’re president of Howard and there’s an African American President of the country, and the neighborhood around Howard is at the epicenter of gentrification. Do you ever feel like “I’m old and I don’t even recognize the place”?

It’s something that touches me deeply. That’s because I trained in general surgery here and a lot of my rotations took place at DC General Hospital in the middle of the crack epidemic. Seeing people lose their lives, especially young Black Americans who were victims of what was taking place at the time, was disheartening. It was also eye-opening because a lot of those young men were my age. While I may have operated on them the night before, I would then be sitting at their bedside talking about music and movies and stuff like that. The only thing that separated us was opportunity.

I often [ask], you know, how much did we contribute as an institution? Did we value the people around here? Did we bring them into the university? Riding on that H2/H4 bus with local citizens, you would hear things about Howard, things like “Rich kids go to Howard.” Now you have a totally different dynamic, and sometimes we catch our own righteousness in that dynamic. So I think there’s a tension there.

I want us to support the original occupants of this neighborhood. I think it does take away from Howard somewhat that the neighborhood has changed in such a way that you have people who—it’s not the color of their skin or their background but their lack of understanding of Howard as part of the fabric. [But] I think sometimes my alums fail to realize that that train left the station 20 years ago. Part of what we have to do as an institution is make sure we invest in pockets of the neighborhood in a way that’s responsible and reconnects Howard to what was originally here, as well as form a new relationship with the gentrified neighborhood. But it has to be built on mutual respect.

I imagine there’s a tension, too, because you need to make Howard’s finances robust, and one of the most valuable things under your control is real estate. You could dispose of it in a profit-maximizing way, but that would also abet the transformation of this historically Black neighborhood.

Yeah, it’s a Catch-22. When I started, our alumni giving was 4.96 percent. It’s now up to 12 percent. We’ve had a record fundraising year. We’ve had five of the six largest gifts given to Howard. The juxtaposition is: If we are raising enough funds, then we don’t need as much revenue from [real estate]. We are a private institution that charges half of what the other private institutions in the city charge. Forty-six percent of our students are Pell Grant–eligible. So yes, there’s a healthy tension. But we don’t sell anything. We want to be owners.

Applications went way up after the 2016 election. What do you attribute that to?

The country got a shock. Our political-science majors went from being, I think, the fourth- or fifth-most popular major on this campus to now rivaling biology, which has been number one for years. You have to remember that the group of students who were coming in around 2016 really grew up knowing a Black President in the White House, who carried himself in a certain manner.

Then you had a very brash, harsh election. This has been a different era. As you bring these students from this generation in, you are seeing them say, “Well, wait a minute, this doesn’t seem right. And this place here seems to hold the values that resonate with me.”

The last thing I’d say is parents are very sophisticated about results. They are aware that if you want to go to medical school, you have to go to undergrad, and Howard does it better than anybody else for African Americans. So it’s not just about coming here, as it were, to find themselves and put themselves in a cocoon.

There may also be a certain relief. Say a professor treats you poorly. You don’t have to wonder whether it was about your race.

Yeah, a D is a D here, I’ll tell you that.

You are a university president. And then you actually go and perform surgery. That’s a heck of a change.

This morning was a good example. I went to the hospital because I have a couple of patients in the hospital. I saw them with the residents. That was an opportunity to do a little bit of teaching. I then left and came up here [to my office]. I spoke to a venture-capital firm we’ve been trying to get involved with. I talked to a trustee before I got on with you. It’s a wide variety of things. I enjoy that.

I think God has given me an opportunity in life. I grew up not knowing how long I would live because of my sickle cell. And so I am obsessed about the journey of life, because I don’t think there’s any destination that will completely fulfill me.

So you’re saying that if you were my surgeon, I shouldn’t worry about you being distracted with university-president work?

I’m not distracted. When I get to the operating room, it’s a special place, very different from what I do as president. It’s the most thankful job in America. Because I operate on patients with GI cancers and the mortality rate from those cancers is very high, oftentimes I’m coming out and giving bad news to families. And they get up and hug you! The courage of cancer patients and their families—that’s witnessing love every day.

Then I come here and I try to administer, and everybody from alums to faculty complains and protests. It is the most thankless job, but this place is so special that I have to pour every sinew of energy into it. So I think an operating room—that’s my sanctuary. Nobody tells me what to do there. And then when I come here, everybody gets to tell me what to do.

This interview has been edited and condensed. Michael Schaffer is the editor of Washingtonian.

Michael Schaffer
Former Editor