More than 100 Howard University students Thursday occupied the school’s administration building, one day after the iconic school disclosed a financial aid scandal that prompted the firing of six employees.
“Today, the goal was to take over and occupy the A building, to have leverage over the university,” said Llewellyn Robinson, 20, a Howard junior who was with the student group HU Resist. “And we’re successful in doing that obviously.”
Some students who lingered in the building Thursday afternoon sat on the floor, their backpacks nearby. A banner that read “Student Power” hung by elevators, and music played, sometimes prompting a raucous, impromptu dance party. Robinson said a list of demands was released days earlier, and the group planned to stay in the building until those demands were met.
“The whole goal here is student power,” he said. “We need power over our university.”
Jason Ajiake, 20, a junior at Howard who is also with HU Resist, noted the university’s history of campus demonstrations, and said Thursday’s protest reflected an array of concerns at the university, not just the financial aid scandal.
The demonstration transcended concerns about financial aid, said Howard senior Alexis McKenney, although she acknowledged the scandal gave organizers “the fuel that we needed.”
“Students were enraged,” McKenney, 21, said. There are Howard students who struggle — students who have trouble with housing or scholarships, she said, and yet the university seems to keep having problems.
“So now, we’re making a stand,” she said.
This week, Howard’s president, Wayne A.I. Frederick, promised “swift action” against those entangled in the financial aid misappropriation.
“My team is currently working with outside experts to assist us in exploring all options to recoup the funds,” Frederick said Wednesday in a message to students. “I feel strongly that any dollar that is taken away from a deserving student due to malfeasance or fraud is unacceptable. We will continue to take swift action against any individuals involved in this wrongdoing.”
Howard officials disclosed the scandal this week but by Thursday morning had not said how much money was involved. An email seeking an estimated figure, sent Thursday to school spokeswoman Alonda Thomas, was not immediately returned.
Robinson said students were angry about the financial aid scandal.
“People were hurt,” he said. “People felt like, ‘Where’s my money going?’ ”
Police were present at the demonstration, and Robinson said there was a concern they might attempt to end the occupation.
“Honestly, we’re in here. We control the building,” he said. “We control the entrances. So right now, we’re in a good position.”
The university has no plans to remove students from the building, Howard spokeswoman Crystal Brown said Thursday evening.
“Howard University students have a legendary history of exercising their civic rights,” Brown said. “We support this wholeheartedly.”
A university investigation discovered that for nine years — from 2007 to 2016 — some employees who received tuition benefits to cover the cost of taking classes were also receiving university grants. That double dipping exceeded the actual cost of attendance, signaling that the workers appeared to be embezzling.
Frederick has said he learned in December 2016 that financial aid money might have been misused, a revelation that triggered an internal investigation. An outside auditor was brought in, and Frederick said he received audit results in May 2017.
Six employees were later fired for “gross misconduct and neglect of duties,” Frederick said. His statement indicated Howard would refer the issue for criminal prosecution, if appropriate. A D.C. police spokeswoman said Thursday the agency had not been contacted about the allegations.
Frederick said he had met with student leaders Wednesday evening to discuss the situation and answer questions.
“I heard their concerns firsthand,” he said in his statement. “It was a productive session and I look forward to having more engagement with them on critical issues as we move the university forward.”
Jade Agudosi, president of the Howard University Student Association, said student leaders were left “a little bit unsatisfied” with the response they received, though Frederick did provide some details of the investigation.
“Some things just didn’t add up for us,” she said. “More specifically, the timeline.”
Agudosi said she saw transparency issues with the way Howard handled the matter, something that was discussed at the meeting. Student leaders are aware of Howard’s legacy, she said, but a lack of transparency suggested the university prioritized its brand over its students.
“And that’s something I can never get behind,” she said.
While no definitive data exist on financial aid fraud involving university dollars, the U.S. Education Department’s inspector general routinely investigates school officials accused of misappropriating federal aid.
In the last three years, the inspector general’s office has been involved in nearly 40 cases of colleges and college officials misusing student aid funds. Some of those cases have resulted in criminal prosecution, while others have been settled out of court or are ongoing. Some involve employees at for-profit colleges, while others involve staff at institutions such as Baruch College in New York and Suffolk University in Boston.
Howard officials said the misappropriated grant money was not from the federal government, nor was it money that donors had designated for grants.
Frederick had said findings from the investigation were reported to the Education Department. That agency’s inspector general would neither confirm nor deny Wednesday whether officials were investigating.
News of Howard’s investigation and the subsequent terminations came the same week that an anonymous item was posted to the online blogging platform Medium alleging an “office-wide scandal” involving officials in the university’s financial aid department. Later, the Medium post was no longer available online.
The financial aid misdeeds also emerged during the same month that Frederick came under fire for criticizing a student’s “tone and tenor” when she expressed concern about whether she would get housing. The student posted her exchange with the university’s president to Twitter, where it garnered attention.
In his message this week to students, Frederick said learning about mishandled funds at Howard could be “difficult to process.” He acknowledged that some students might feel the university had failed to communicate sufficiently when it did not disclose the existence of the investigation sooner.
“The goal established at the onset of this investigation was to conduct it in a confidential manner that ensured a thorough examination of the issues without jeopardizing the integrity of the findings,” he said. “However, that does not mitigate the sense of mistrust that many students and members of our community feel right now. We understand that and we hear you.”