“This is something that’s decades in the making, years in the making. It’s been brewing up in our university culture,” said Alexis McKenney, a senior and member of HU Resist, the student group that led the protest. On Friday evening, leaders of the occupation said the sit-in will continue after a meeting with two trustees failed to yield a resolution.
Howard, founded in 1867, has an enrollment of 10,000 students and has long been considered the nation’s preeminent institution of black higher education. It boasts a rich list of accomplished graduates including author Toni Morrison, Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall, actress Taraji P. Henson, opera singer Jessye Norman and Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.). In recent years, however, the school has come under a barrage of criticism for financial mismanagement, deteriorating facilities and administrative decisions that have tarnished its reputation and angered its powerful alumni base.
In March 2017, protests swept across campus, with students accusing the university of failing to act promptly in response to sexual assault complaints. In May, five women, all students or former students at Howard, filed a federal lawsuit against the university, accusing the school of a “discriminatory and retaliatory response to multiple complaints of sexual assault and harassment.” A sixth woman joined the lawsuit in November.
Layoffs, accreditation issues and sexual harassment and discrimination lawsuits have plagued the university’s hospital, which has paid at least $27 million in wrongful-death settlements since 2007, a Washington Post examination has found.
In January, the school had to delay the opening of the semester for undergraduates because of damage to buildings caused by freezing temperatures, power outages and ruptured steam pipes. Many students eventually returned to dorms that had heat, but no hot water.
And this March, Howard President Wayne A.I. Frederick earned the wrath of students when he responded to an email from a sophomore who expressed concern that she would not get housing in the fall. The president told the student that her “tone and tenor is inappropriate.”
The students said the removal of Frederick is not negotiable and that they would not leave until his resignation was confirmed. Frederick, a surgeon and Howard graduate who was appointed president in July 2014, did not comment on the demand that he step down but issued a lengthy statement Friday telling students, “I am listening to you and I am challenging my team to make the changes you are expressing a dire need to see.”
Shortly after 6 p.m. Friday, leaders of the occupation appeared outside for a news briefing and said students had met for three hours in the afternoon with two university trustees. But McKenney said it became clear during the meeting that several trustees had not read the students’ demands.
More than 300 students were inside the building Friday and planned to stay overnight until university officials agreed to negotiate with them, the students said.
“There is this blind faith in the president,” McKenney said.
Frederick has said he learned in December 2016 that financial aid money might have been misappropriated. 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. At the time, his statement indicated the university would refer the issue for criminal prosecution, if appropriate.
It remains unclear exactly how much money was involved in the matter. Howard officials have not revealed the total figure.
News of the investigation and firings came the same week that an anonymous item was posted to the online blogging platform Medium, which alleged an “office-wide scandal” involving the university’s financial aid department. The Medium post was later taken down.
In a separate letter, Board of Trustees Chairman Stacey J. Mobley wrote, “While I recognize this has been a difficult week for our entire community, my fellow board members and I fully support President Frederick’s continuous progress on the critical issues facing our campus community.”
The occupation of Howard’s administration hall began when members of the student group, HU Resist, took over three floors late Thursday afternoon. Backpacks lined the floor, a banner that read “Student Power” hung by elevators and music played, sometimes prompting a raucous, impromptu dance party.
By Thursday night, air mattresses were spread across the floor inside the lobby. Upstairs, students buzzed around the floors like it was a makeshift dormitory, as outside groups provided food and sleeping mats, and legal observers stood by. Some students huddled with laptops connected to power strips. Others studied hand-scribbled math equations in their notebooks.
On Friday morning, signs posted at the building’s doors indicated that only students were allowed to enter. The group’s demands were handwritten onto poster board and lined the front of the building. Among other requests, they called for fair housing for students, an end to “unsubstantiated” tuition hikes and for the university to address “rape culture” on the campus.
There were no immediate plans by the protesters to end their sit-in or by the university to remove the students from the administration building.
Leaders of HU Resist said their demands were informed by a survey of students about campus grievances in February and March. Juan Demetrixx, one of the student organizers, pointed to widespread complaints about housing conditions and a belief that the university protects the accused rather than accusers in sexual assault cases. The new financial aid controversy, he said, added fuel to what was already a tenuous situation on campus.
“That was the boiling point,” Demetrixx said.
Throughout the day Friday, a steady flow of supporters and well-wishers dropped off cases of water, snacks and food to the students.
Howard graduate Denville Myrie pulled up his food truck, Jerk At Nite, midafternoon Friday. He started the business to provide healthy, late-night food alternatives to students. On Friday, he donated jerk chicken and macaroni and cheese to the protesters.
“I went here. I’ve embraced the struggle and I’m just giving back,” he said.
As students continued protesting inside the administration building, life continued with relative normalcy elsewhere on campus. Students walked to class, socialized and lounged at campus eateries.
Ajae Grisby, 22, said she hasn’t always agreed with the approach HU Resist has taken to protest. But she said she agrees with several of the demands that led to the sit-in and, were it not for work and class, would participate.
“You can’t be a great student if you don’t have anywhere to stay,” she said. “You can’t be a great student if there’s no hot water in your dorm.”
Sitting on the Yard, a grassy quad, with friends, Quinn Smith recalled how the university had become a home for her.
“I love the people here. I love the spirit, the energy, the diversity,” she said. “I really can’t picture myself anywhere but here.”
But the freshman may have to transfer or take a semester off. She learned about a housing security deposit she was supposed to pay the day before it was due and wasn’t able to come up with the $200.
She doesn’t know where she will live next school year.
Protesters are demanding the university provide housing to all students under 21 — a change that would benefit Quinn, who is from Texas and doesn’t have family in the District.
Standing outside the administration building, Quentin Mansfield, vice president of the Howard University Student Association, said concerns are widespread over housing and financial aid that are reflected in the demands.
“Some of these demands are very simple fixes,” the 22-year-old said. “The fact they haven’t been fixed alludes to a greater problem, which has led to the mistrust and the poor relationship between administration and students.”
Danielle Douglas-Gabriel and Sarah Larimer contributed to this report.