'Sold a dream': As HBCUs struggle for funding, Howard University students protest living conditions and lack of voice

·8 min read

Political science major Erica England returned to Howard University in 2018 after an eight-year hiatus, hoping to enjoy the university’s status as an elite historically Black school.

She soon realized she could barely keep up with tuition despite working full-time. Meanwhile, her life and studies were disrupted by what she and others describe as substandard housing – including roaches and rats, leaky pipes, cold showers and spotty Wi-Fi.

Now England, of Raleigh, North Carolina, is among more than 100 students conducting a sit-in at Howard’s student center in Washington, D.C., a demonstration that on Friday headed into its 11th day with students protesting living conditions and the elimination of representative seats for students, faculty and alumni from the school’s Board of Trustees.

“Especially for freshmen who are part of this protest, I think they felt like they were sold a dream,” said England, 30. “This was a dream school for a lot of people here. This great legacy and being part of that was so important, and then they get here and feel like the rug was snatched out from under them.”

Some students have posted photos on social media showing ceilings sprouting mushrooms and mold growing on shoes. One student, a freshman, posted a video claiming classmates had been hospitalized for breathing issues related to mold exposure or whose belongings had been irreparably damaged by mold.

Howard University estimates its on-campus tuition and room-and-board cost for the current academic year at $43,594.

Frustrations boiled over on Oct. 12 when, England said, university administrators failed to show at a proposed forum intended to air their concerns. Instead, about 15 students refused to leave the building despite attempts by campus police to force them out – a number that grew to about 50 inside with dozens more outside.

The students have been sleeping on blankets and inflatable mattresses or under tarp-covered shelters in the rain, existing on snacks, food, supplies and toiletries donated by supporters.

The Howard University Campus at sunrise in Washington, Saturday, Dec. 19, 2015. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
The Howard University Campus at sunrise in Washington, Saturday, Dec. 19, 2015. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Leaders of The Live Movement, among the groups leading the protest, say students won’t leave the building until several demands are met. Those include a meeting with Howard President Wayne A.I. Frederick by month’s end, formalized discussion of housing plans for future students and reinstatement of student, alumni and faculty positions on the school’s board of trustees.

Howard University administrators did not respond to a request for comment but have said they are addressing the mold issue. Last week, a statement from Cynthia Evers, the school’s vice president for student affairs, said “the well-being of students is always one of our top concerns and we will also support the right to a peaceful protest.”

In her statement, Evers said 94% of students were housed and said the board of trustees issue would be discussed at an upcoming town hall.

A long history of Howard student protest

The protest comes at a time when historically Black colleges and universities are reeling from news that federal aid to historically black colleges and universities (HCBUs) will likely fall far short of expectations in President Joe Biden’s budget package. The president’s most recent proposal allocates $1.45 billion for the historically underfunded institutions, a number that could plummet further as Congressional negotiations over the Build Back Better plan proceed.

About one in eight Black students earn their bachelor’s degrees at one of the country's 107 HCBUs, whose large numbers of students from low-income households offer less tuition revenue and financial resources compared to other schools. But 40% of Black member of Congress attended HCBUs, as did Vice President Kamala Harris, a Howard University graduate; such schools produce 42% of Black engineers and 80% of Black judges.

Howard University has a long history of student protest, most notably a five-day occupation of Howard’s administration building in 1968 that resulted in disciplinary policy changes, an emphasis on African-American history courses, immunity for students charged in earlier protests and ultimately representation on Howard’s board of trustees.

In 1983, hundreds of Howard students marched on the administration building to protest the removal and expulsion of senior Janice McKnight, editor of The Hilltop, the school’s student newspaper. Six years later, students again occupied the administration building to protest, among other things, tuition hikes and the appointment of Republican strategist Lee Atwater to the school’s board of trustees.

In 2018, a nine-day occupation of the building led to a revised university sexual-assault policy, a freezing of undergrad tuition rates and institution of a food bank for students and local community.

Even before the ongoing sit-in, England said, smaller protests had taken place throughout the semester, including an overnight “sit-out” conducted along a visible campus avenue to support upperclassmen pushed off campus as on-campus housing was made available to incoming students.

“There are students dealing with homelessness, sleeping in their cars,” said England, who heads the school’s Young Democratic Socialists of America chapter. “One student told me she was sleeping in a storage unit she had rented.”

Drawing support through social media

Students first occupied the upper level of the student center, then spread to the basement cafeteria area when university officials opted to shut the building down, documenting their activism on social media under the hashtag #blackburntakeover and drawing support both locally and beyond.

“The courageous act of protest from Howard University students should be recognized in this moment,” Derrick Johnson, the NAACP’s president and CEO, said in a statement. “At no point is it acceptable for a student to face housing insecurities while attending school. Their demands must be met with swift attention and due diligence from the HU administration immediately.”

This week in Georgia, a similar sit-in took place in solidarity with Howard demonstrators at the Atlanta University Center Consortium, where students of the consortium’s member schools – Clark Atlanta University, Morehouse College and Spelman College – occupied space near the consortium library.

But the effort has also drawn national attention, including from Bernice King, the youngest child of Martin Luther King Jr.

“Students @HowardU are stepping up to ensure a humane, just university, nation and world,” King wrote on Twitter. “In a 1968 speech at Harvard, my mother emphasized the importance of student activism. Raise your housing standards, #HowardUniversity.”

Another group that has publicly supported the sit-in is Howard Alumni United, which has also decried the university’s proposal to eliminate affiliate seats, including alumni, on its board of trustees.

“Fifty years ago, Howard University students shut down the university with a historic protest that launched an era of shared governance at Howard,” the group wrote on its website. “The university’s Board of Trustees now wants to turn back the clock by abolishing the student, alumni and faculty seats on the Board – effectively silencing the voices and votes of these key stakeholders.”

William Damani Keene, a 1966 graduate of Howard who served as dean of student life for 14 years, called the administration’s proposal to abolish affiliate trustees “very ill-advised.”

“This is something that we students of the 1960s and early 70s hold dear, because these positions came as a result of great student sacrifice,” said Keene, among the panelists at a forum Friday evening exploring the history of student protest at Howard. The event was sponsored by Howard Alumni United.

'The students have already won'

Howard, Keene noted, is among the more elite and better funded HCBU’s, and when students hear of large contributions made to the school it’s only natural that they wonder where the money is going. That has been compounded, he said, by high expectations as students return to campus life after COVID.

FILE - In this Sept. 26, 2020, file photo, members of the LSU marching band, wearing mask, sit socially distanced from one another due to COVID-19 restrictions before an NCAA college football game between the LSU and the Mississippi State in Baton Rouge, La. Louisiana State University students will have to wear masks in classrooms and at campus events this fall to help fight the spread of COVID-19, but won't have to be vaccinated to return to school, university officials announced Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2021. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, File)
FILE - In this Sept. 26, 2020, file photo, members of the LSU marching band, wearing mask, sit socially distanced from one another due to COVID-19 restrictions before an NCAA college football game between the LSU and the Mississippi State in Baton Rouge, La. Louisiana State University students will have to wear masks in classrooms and at campus events this fall to help fight the spread of COVID-19, but won't have to be vaccinated to return to school, university officials announced Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2021. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, File)

England said those expectations have been dashed by what she describes as a lack of preparation for the post-COVID student influx and havoc wreaked by a recent cyberattack that disabled university internet operations for more than a week.

For now, she’s staying put at the student center, and neither side is budging.

“I don’t know how long it’s going to go on, but the administration should realize this will keep happening,” England said. “Even if we left the building today, it wouldn’t be long before another sit-in happens unless they move to fix the problems.”

Chris Cathcart, a 1986 graduate and former student association president who was also among Friday's forum panelists, said the protest will likely produce modest housing improvements and other changes, “probably not to the degree that students want or as fast, but the table will be set for the next group.”

In his mind, however, “the students have already won,” he said. “They have resources we didn’t have, with social media. They mobilized a national movement around their issue in a matter of days. It would take us weeks to get the campus itself mobilized.

“Howard is better when all its voices are heard. I always say that the most important students in the history of the institution are the ones who are there now. You pick up the baton, and it’s your time to run.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Howard University sit-in continues as students decry living conditions

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