Howard University, the renowned historically Black institution that was founded to educate freed slaves, has selected a historian of Latin America as its next president, as the university’s leaders hope to continue its trajectory of surging enrollment and research growth.
Ben Vinson III, who has served as provost of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland since 2018, was chosen to be the 18th president of Howard, a 156-year-old university in Washington, D.C., that counts Vice President Kamala Harris, the former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and the author Toni Morrison among its alumni. He will assume the post on Sept. 1.
The move, announced by the university on Tuesday, comes at an energized time for Howard, which has scored a series of wins in recent years, including record research expenditures and high-profile academic hires. Dr. Vinson will need to keep up the momentum, as well as deal with students who have staged sit-ins and protested conditions at the university.
“Dr. Vinson is the right leader to usher Howard into its next era,” Leslie Hale, vice chair of the university’s board of trustees, said in a statement. “As a historian, he reveres the Howard legacy and brings a bold perspective of where Howard University should sit within the upper echelon of academic institutions.”
Some faculty members said his selection was a surprise, objecting to the search process. Dr. Marcus Alfred, an associate professor of physics and astronomy and chair of the faculty senate, said the university limited the faculty senate’s participation. And he said that in a break from the past, the university community was not given the opportunity to meet with the finalists.
In the last few years, Howard University has appointed high-profile figures like Stacey Abrams, the politician and voting rights activist, and the journalists Nikole Hannah-Jones and Ta-Nehisi Coates to its faculty.
University leaders have said they hope the institution can become the first historically Black college to break into the select group of institutions with the highest research expenditures. In October, the university announced that it had raised $122 million in research grants and contracts, a record.
Last year, the university announced that it would spend $785 million to build three new academic halls and renovate other buildings, a move that officials at the time described as the product of “unprecedented financial strength.”
Wayne A.I. Frederick, who said last year that he would step down as president of the university, called the facilities investment a “watershed moment.” Officials described it at the time as the biggest real-estate investment in the university’s history, driven partly by increased enrollment.
They also credited increased public and philanthropic investment. In 2020, the university announced that it had received a $40 million gift from MacKenzie Scott, the former wife of Jeff Bezos, who founded Amazon.
Even so, students have been impatient for change. In 2021, they held sit-ins and slept in tents to protest housing shortages and poor living conditions in the dorms, a concern common to many historically Black universities with aging buildings. After a standoff lasting more than a month, students reached an agreement with Howard and ended the protest.
Dr. Vinson’s academic field makes a sharp contrast with that of Dr. Frederick, the outgoing president, who is a Howard-trained surgeon. The university search committee and trustees turned next to a historian, with his focus cast outside of the United States.
Dr. Vinson is a scholar of the African diaspora with an eye especially on colonial Latin America. He is the author of several books, including “Before Mestizaje: The Frontiers of Race and Caste in Colonial Mexico.”
Dr. Vinson, 52, spent his childhood on military bases in Italy, where his father was a master sergeant in the U.S. Air Force. He has previously served as the founding director of the Center for Africana Studies at Johns Hopkins University, where he also taught history, and as dean of George Washington University’s liberal arts and sciences college.
The chairman of the Howard board of trustees, Laurence C. Morse, said in a news release that Dr. Vinson had “demonstrated his commitment to elevating the diversity of experiences of people of the African diaspora — a commitment that aligns well with Howard University’s mission and vision.”Mr. Morse did not respond to an interview request.
In a statement, the president of Case Western Reserve, Eric W. Kaler, credited Dr. Vinson with leading development of that university’s ambitious strategic plan and new general education requirements, and with increasing diversity in its faculty and graduate student recruitment. President Kaler also said that Dr. Vinson was a strong supporter of the humanities at a time when some universities were cutting back on them.
“He is an exceptionally warm and empathetic person and will be a great leader for Howard,” he said.