WASHINGTON - James E. Cheek, 77, who was president of Howard University during a tumultuous 20-year period from 1969 to 1989 and left the university in the wake of a student uprising, died Jan. 8 in Greensboro, N.C., where he was living. The cause of death could not be learned.
Cheek came to the historically black university in the heart of Washington after the school had been rocked by two years of demonstrations and student boycotts. Only 37 when he took office in September 1969, Cheek sometimes appeared in dashikis and seemed to speak the language of a new generation.
He pledged to launch a "new era" at the university and to help Howard maintain its standing as one of the nation's pre-eminent black educational institutions.
In his first year, as riots and student disruptions engulfed campuses nationwide, Howard students demanded reforms in the faculty and curriculum. Grades were temporarily suspended, and all students were assured of passing. Cheek vowed to stand up to the students.
"Your president will not attempt to administer under intimidation, violence or coercion of any kind," he said. "Those who resort to such tactics demonstrate their unworthiness to be members of our academic community."
He decided to redefine the school's mission as a "second emancipation of blacks in America," with a curriculum more reflective of the African-American experience.
In 1997, the Internal Revenue Service seized $63,000 from Cheek's bank accounts for not paying back taxes. Cheek, who had acquired four houses, three yachts, three cars, a 250-gallon aquarium and $10,000 worth of model trains, filed for bankruptcy.