Alexis McKenney, a Howard University student, remembers the celebration at her school Friday. She recalls shouting, “We won!” And the chants about student power that resounded.
“And just us . . . rejoicing in that moment, with everyone jumping around and dancing and screaming, me on the megaphone,” McKenney said. “It was a really, really good moment.”
The occupation of Howard’s administration building ended Friday, as school officials made commitments and protesting students abandoned the makeshift home they had created in the “A” building.
What remains to be seen is what those commitments will mean at the historically black university in Northwest Washington and how Howard’s students and faculty will hold university leaders accountable.
Many of the demands laid out by students were clear and direct — the hiring of more counselors, the disarming of campus police officers, the immediate resignation of Howard’s embattled president. The results of the negotiations were murkier, with task forces created, reviews promised and indications that Howard would listen to student voices. It suggested that while the protest set the framework for change at Howard, that change might not happen right away.
“Institutional change doesn’t happen overnight,” said McKenney, a senior who is expected to graduate soon and a member of HU Resist, which led the eight-day occupation. “We knew that this was only the beginning. So we are prepared . . . to really help set that foundation, because regardless of how long it takes to put those systems in place, they’ll be there to stay for years to come.”
Students swarmed Howard’s administration and encamped there in late March. A lengthy standoff followed as students and university trustees met to negotiate about student demands.
Those demands included improvements in mental-health services and a greater voice in university decision-making. Students also sought the resignation of Howard President Wayne A.I. Frederick, initially describing his departure as nonnegotiable but later relenting.
“We understood that that wasn’t going to happen within our negotiations,” McKenney said. “It wasn’t worth losing everything that we had gained.”
Jade Agudosi, president of the Howard University Student Association and a senior, pointed out that freshmen and sophomores were among those involved in the protest, ensuring the movement’s survival.
“The university is going to be left in good hands — at least with the new wave of students and student leaders that I see emerging from this campus,” Agudosi said.
Howard officials last week announced a “statement of commitments” meant to address the needs of the campus and to satisfy the occupiers’ demands.
University leaders are expected to support a student-led effort to establish a food pantry in the surrounding neighborhood. And administrators promised to urge the Board of Trustees to freeze tuition at its current level.
The university also agreed to set up task forces. One will examine Howard’s Department of Public Safety. “If the university truly respects the value of black life, it must take a preventative approach to police violence,” the students said in their demands.
Another task force is expected to review the university’s system for handling grade changes and student code-of-conduct issues. Another is to focus on sexual assault and sexual harassment. All three will involve students.
“The solutions that these students have worked on with the Board of Trustees for the problems that we face, and for the difficult issues that challenge us every day, are solutions that I think are very creative and they should be very proud of,” Frederick said at a news conference Friday. An attempt to reach him for further comment through a school spokeswoman was unsuccessful Monday.
Maya McCollum, a Howard freshman and a member of HU Resist, said she expects to remain busy in her next few years at the school.
“It looks like task forces and talking to politicians and reporters” during coming years, she said. “We honestly hope that we can help other schools start to build their student power movement.”
A sense of solidarity developed among Howard faculty, students and alumni during the occupation, McKenney said. That will be important as students work to hold their school accountable, she said.
“A big part of it is staying in touch with the community that we built and the network and connections that we built throughout the occupation,” she said.
The protest at Howard came not long after a financial aid scandal hit the campus, though those involved have said their effort was about more than those alleged misdeeds, which prompted the firing of six employees.
“It was about the need for a change in culture at Howard, toward a culture of student empowerment, in which we are involved in the things that affect our everyday lives,” McKenney said. “Moving forward, I think, especially the students who were in the building during our occupation, they understand the potential of student empowerment.”