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350 Howard U. Students, Workers Protest Against Aid Delays and Labor Practices

By Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 5, 2009; B01

About 350 students and union workers crowded the plaza outside Howard University's administration building Friday morning, protesting a long list of grievances -- including problems with on-campus housing, delays in financial aid payments and labor practices -- and at one point threatening a sit-in before they were turned away from the building's doors.

"We love Howard," said Corey Briscoe, 20, a junior and the director of student advocacy for the Howard University Student Association. "But this impinges on academic freedom."

The students, many wearing black T-shirts as a sign of protest, waved colorful signs and chanted "Students first!" and "We want answers!"

Students described long lines at the financial aid office and payments that were missing nearly two weeks after school started.

"I live off campus. On September first, I was supposed to pay my rent," said sophomore Jecika Merzius, 19. She said she turned in her aid forms in June but was only approved Thursday. "Everyone is having the same problem."

Another student said she had had similar problems last year.

"I wasn't even sure I could afford to come here until the first day of school," said Tahir Alberga, 19, a sophomore.

A university spokeswoman said the Office of the Provost met with student leadership Friday. A follow-up meeting is planned for early next week, with the president and senior leadership present to discuss student concerns and solutions.

"We take the concerns raised by our students very seriously, and the university is committed to providing a high-quality education and first-rate student support services," she said in a statement.

Students also complained about a shortage of on-campus housing and called for the resignation of the interim vice provost of student affairs, Charles Gibbs, who they said had censored an article about disciplinary actions against students in the Hilltop, the student-run newspaper.

Members of a service workers union protested the school's employment practices.

Although the students were, in part, advocating press freedom, organizers asked participants not to speak to reporters unless the student organization's public relations director was present. Students who spoke to one reporter were repeatedly hassled by others.

Some students watching from across the street weren't convinced that the protest would be effective.

"I don't think this is the right way," said junior Dexter Williams, 21. "There have been many protests on campus before, and nothing's changed."

As the crowd dwindled, a minor scuffle broke out as Joseph Smith, 25, a divinity school student, tried to open a door and was kicked in the leg by a Howard security officer. But the doors locked as the protest organizers asked the crowd to remain calm. By 1:30 p.m., 2 1/2 hours after the protest had started, organizers asked the crowd to move to a university chapel, where protesters could rest and wait as organizers met with university administrators.

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