One of the favorite Friday night hangouts at Howard University is the game room in the basement of the Blackburn Student Center, where pool-playing and jive talk is plentiful. Another is the top-floor balcony of the center, which offers a panoramic view of the sprawling campus and the historic surroundings of what some consider the Harvard of America's black community.
Last Friday night, there was another, not as popular gathering point on the other side of the campus, where three dozen students met to plan what they hope will be a major protest Saturday against Vice President George Bush, who is scheduled to speak at Howard's commencement.
To the students at the planning session, gadflies on the otherwise seemingly serene campus, Bush represents all of the worst elements of the current political scene: Republicans, covert intervention abroad (especially in southern Africa) and cutbacks in social programs at home. Despite his own "moderate" label, George Bush, to them, personifies the conservative agenda.
But to Howard President James E. Cheek, who invited him, Bush is not such a bad fellow to know these days -- especially at a time when federal dollars are getting more scarce. Two-thirds of Howard's money comes from the federal government, and Bush is now the No. 2 man there. Even so, Cheeks obviously did not invite him solely for financial gain.
So what we have now at Howard is the making of a sharp confrontation, perhaps of ideas more than anything else, but one which some would view as a clash of styles, a clash of generations, or a clash of what black colleges should and should not be doing in these troubled times. On one side is Cheek, the pragmatic president of a successful university; on the other, the students -- handful that they are -- hoping that the tactics of protest so much in vogue a decade-and-a-half ago can still be effective.
"They say that we're using the 1960s approach to deal with the 1980s problems," said Danny Everett, an organizer from the Howard University Student Association. "But Dr. Cheek is using the 1920s approach."
The 1920s approach, he said, was like the scene from the movie "Roots," in which the black college president unhesitatingly responds to the requests of some liberal white benefactors by crooning one of those old Negro spirituals so soothing to the ears of some.
Life is not so simple.
Howard, as the nation's largest traditionally black university, located in the Nation's Capital, has at times played a major role in the civil rights struggle.
Many of the campus militants of the '80s were not born when the university contributed some of the greatest scholars and legal minds to the ranks of the struggle: Thurgood Marshall, Charles Hamilton Houston, Alaine Locke, E. Franklin Frazier, Charles Drew, Rayford Logan, Sterling Brown and many more.
Today, stripped of many of its best students by the success of the integration its foot soldiers fought so hard to secure, the university's dependence on federal allocations has come into sharper focus than ever.
In many instances, its efforts to pump blacks into the economic middle class have been a one-way street when it comes to alumni contributions, school administrators say, noting in fairness to the alumni that black college graduates still do not fare as well as their white counterparts.
The dependence on federal money underscores the dilemma for almost all the nation's traditionally black colleges and universities, and even Everett acknowledged, "Howard does need the federal government's money to survive. I would, in the future, like to see Howard survive independently."
Some students see the federal dependence as blunting what they consider the role of black colleges in the 1980s -- providing a forum for black consciousness and activism, much as the university did decades ago.
Many of the more activist Howard students say they fear a conspiracy of sorts in Bush coming to speak. They don't want to see support for their school offered with one hand while the Reagan administration cuts back on social programs -- like the ones that helped them get to college -- with the other.
The two schools of thought at Howard, pragmatism versus moderation, are perhaps most vividly illustrated by the students' preference for an alternative commencement speaker -- Zimbabwean Prime Minister Robert Mugabe.
Mugabe, who must feel a little like Dr. Cheek these days in asking the Reagan administration for money while still trying to toe a militant line, may not be in any position to help Howard out financially. But his appearance, instead of Bush's would make the militants at Howard feel a lot better and in a lot closer touch with the good old days.