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Howard president says two-week occupation of student center ‘must end’

Students have been protesting housing conditions and calling for improved representation

Tents are set up near the Blackburn University Center as students protest housing conditions and other issues at Howard University. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

In his first public message addressing Howard University’s protests over student housing and representation, the school’s president called on Tuesday for students to cease their occupation of the campus student center — a demonstration entering its third week.

“There may be areas where we agree to disagree. That’s the nature of a vibrant community,” President Wayne A.I. Frederick wrote in a missive to students. “However, Howard University’s proud tradition of student protest has never been — and can never be — invoked as a justification for tactics that harm our students.”

Roughly 50 students have occupied the Blackburn University Center since the night of Oct. 12, and dozens more have pitched tents outside, demonstrators said. According to Frederick, they are blocking access to important services. “The occupation of the Blackburn center must end,” he said Tuesday.

The building is home to the campus’s largest cafeteria, as well as services such as the office of student life and activities. The university had to relocate a coronavirus testing site from the building, a central spot on campus, to the Louis Stokes Health Sciences Library, university spokesperson Frank Tramble said.

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“There is a distinct difference between peaceful protest and freedom of expression and the occupation of a university building that impedes operations and access to essential services and creates health and safety risks,” Frederick wrote.

But after two weeks of protesting, and little interaction with their president, some students remained distrustful of the administration.

“It was sad,” Folasade Fashina, a senior who lives off campus but has attended the protests, said of the president’s letter. “It echoes a lot of the sentiments that were in previous emails, as far as attempting to make it seem like this protest is different from the ones of the past. They’d prefer to attack [students'] credibility than to do their job.”

Demonstrators have outlined four core demands: an in-person town hall with Frederick and other officials before the end of the month; the permanent reinstatement of student, alumni and faculty affiliate positions that are being removed from the school’s board of trustees; a meeting with university leaders about housing; and legal, disciplinary and academic immunity for protesters.

In a recent meeting with students, Frederick agreed to schedule time to discuss housing plans, and on Tuesday said he had “committed to expanded regular meetings with student leaders.” He added that university officials have met with protesters to determine a path forward, though it was not clear what that plan entailed. Students maintain that they will occupy Blackburn until their demands are met.

Howard University students occupy campus building in day-long protest, clash with officials

Many of the protesters’ concerns revolve around university housing, in which several students said they have encountered mold, flooding, mice and other problems.

Frederick said the facilities issues were not widespread and that “the vast majority of our students are living comfortably in their rooms.” More than 5,100 students live in university housing, and there have been 38 reports of mold issues, Tramble said. Thirty-one of those cases, he said, have been remedied.

During the protests’ first week, university officials said students who find mold in their rooms could be relocated, and they have encouraged students in the days since to report any issues to the university. Officials are also going door-to-door to investigate unreported issues, Frederick said.

But some students remain skeptical. Freshman Autumn Hester said she reported her dorm room’s mold growth to the university and wants different housing but has yet to be reassigned. She called Frederick’s letter “frustrating.”

“The moment we leave, we lose leverage,” Hester said. “We’re staying put, no matter what he says.”