The day it all began, in late March of last year, Kenneth Holmes had been at Howard University for about two years. During that time, Holmes, Howard’s vice president of student affairs, had spoken with students about their needs and issues, including concerns about housing.
On this late March day, Holmes said, he got a call about a protest starting in the university’s administration building, where his office is located. He went downstairs, found student organizers and started to hash out what was happening.
“When I saw that students had pillows and some other things,” Holmes said, “I was like, ‘Okay, this is different.’ ”
It has been a year since that days-long student protest on Howard’s campus. In the months that followed, Howard administrators and a top student leader say that the university made strides fulfilling commitments reached during the impasse.
“The progress has been astronomical,” said Amos Jackson III, president of the Howard University Student Association. “We weren’t on the best page a year” ago.
Because of last year’s protest, there is a renewed emphasis on communication and institutional transparency, Jackson said. That, he said, is what the protests accomplished.
Holmes and Howard’s president, Wayne A.I. Frederick, said in interviews that even as the protest began, the university was trying to address some of the concerns students highlighted.
But Jackson said the protest was needed. Students weren’t necessarily aware that Howard leaders were trying to resolve their grievances, he said.
During the demonstration, students occupied Howard’s “A” building and called for changes on their campus in Northwest Washington. They released demands. They hung a banner that read “Student Power.” They met with university officials for negotiations.
“It was a very challenging time for the university,” Board of Trustees member Marie C. Johns said. “I felt a particular weight of wanting to get it right, because so much rested on getting those conversations right with our students and getting to a good place at the end of the story.
“And I’m happy to say that I think we did that. Took a lot of work. But we did that.”
HU Resist — the student group at the heart of the protest — did not respond to emails from The Washington Post seeking comment.
Of the 11 commitments released after the occupation, nine have been fulfilled, according to a progress report released by Howard in late March. That includes one objective — extending a 2018 deadline for housing deposits — that was granted during the protest.
Howard officials began conversations with students about the adequacy of campus housing “almost immediately following the sit-in,” according to the document. The school held town hall meetings to discuss the issue, gathered focus groups together and worked with Howard’s student government.
A task force examining campus safety has met regularly, the university said, and another group, focused on bolstering a system that holds faculty members and students accountable for their words and behavior, convened several times.
Staff and students have met to review proposals for a food pantry that is expected to serve the community that surrounds the university. That committee is still trying to settle on a plan, according to the university.
One of the commitments from the protest was the development of a committee on student life and affairs. It has met twice — once in the fall and again in March, said Jackson, the student association president.
“We’ve been doing the work,” Jackson said. “I believe that the institution is moving in the right direction because students are the number one priority.”
Norman Harris II, a senior at Howard, said the university has tried to be more transparent following the protest, which he did not join. He said students reached a “breaking point” after a host of concerns emerged simultaneously.
“That’s a special thing about Howard — everybody here is so socially active and concerned about civic change, in the same way,” he said. “So people coming together to actually make that happen, it’s not unusual for Howard. But to actually have those changes implemented . . . is refreshing, to see that it just wasn’t all for nothing.”
One of the students who took part in the protest, sophomore Jade Scott, carries memories of the “community feeling” she found inside the “A” building. She slept in the building overnight and stood watch over its doors in the morning.
Howard “doesn’t live up to its potential all the time,” she said. “So when it is not doing what it should, it’s the students’ responsibility to help nudge it along.”
Frederick said he thinks the university is at a different place than a year ago. “And I think it always will be,” he said. No institution goes through major changes, such as a protest or shift in leadership, and remains the same, he said. But evolution in higher education can be complicated.
“It takes time,” he said. “But we have a responsibility to be as agile as possible, and as nimble, in terms of trying to make change.”
Part of that change, Frederick said, involved strengthening communication with students.
“Over the course of the year, we’ve been able to not just learn that, but use appropriate techniques and interventions to enhance that as well,” he said. “So I think that has been an area of significant progress.”
Student activists had called for Frederick’s resignation during the demonstration, a demand that was not met. After the protest ended, Johns, the trustee, said Frederick had the board’s “unequivocal and unwavering support.”
Jackson said he has noticed changes in the way Frederick interacts with Howard students, particularly on social media.
“We’re moving in the right direction,” Jackson said.
Johns said that in the past year, she has endeavored to spend more time with students. That was something she already did, she said, but she is even more committed to listening now.
“Even though I felt like I was in good touch with students — I often have students over for dinner, I invite them to come to church with me — so I make it a point of staying closely involved with students, but I know there’s always room to do more,” she said.