Sitting beside a flagpole on the campus of Howard University, Reina Lopez stared across at a man in a black shirt and khakis standing nearby, her gaze full of reproach.

She’s spent the past decade and a half sweeping the floors and cleaning the bathrooms of Howard’s Cramton Auditorium. Uniformed in a Bison blue smock bearing Howard’s insignia and her name monogrammed on the front, she at least felt like a valued member of the historically black university, and she appreciated the benefits it offered its lowest-rung workers — like free health care and tuition waivers — which meant their kids could climb further than they had.

To Lopez, that man — a manager for Thompson Hospitality, a company which is about to take over janitorial duties for Howard — represented a new sense of insecurity, a feeling that the special place that the university had reserved for its facilities maintenance workers was about to vanish.

“They look at us, like we are nothing,” said Lopez, 45, describing the distance and coldness she feels from Thompson officials as they have started to show up on campus, so different from the warm camaraderie she has developed with the university’s students and faculty.

Last month Lopez received a letter from Howard, saying that starting next year she would be a Thompson employee, too. That threw everything she’s known in doubt: For the university’s 200-odd facilities maintenance workers, there would be no guarantee of continued employment, no promise of stellar health care, and for future employees, perhaps no tuition assistance either. (Thompson did not respond to a request for comment.)

Howard is far from the first university to outsource its labor force to a contractor as part of a cost-saving initiative — more than a quarter of private schools already have. But its decision to do so has raised difficult questions about the responsibilities of a historically black college long invested in advancing the economic well-being of racial minorities.

The Service Employees International Union — which represents the 200 mostly African American janitors, plumbers and electricians who will soon see their jobs outsources — has challenged Howard officials on whether the outsourcing decision is consistent with its values.

“I am a strong believer in [historically black colleges], and I don’t think [Howard] President [Wayne] Frederick can say you’re not a part of this family,” said Valarie Long, an SEIU vice president at a rally Monday in front of the administration building.

The university has long been in the vanguard of the struggle for civil rights, she said in an interview later. “The workers who make the university work were not less part of that history.”

Howard, whose final fortunes have darkened in recent years, says it needed to cut costs.

“Howard engages strategic business partners to provide non-core services that allows the University to continue to invest in our academic mission and core business of teaching, research and clinical services,” said spokeswoman Kerry-Ann Hamilton.

But for Lopez, the implications are traumatic.

“We see ourselves like a family,” says Lopez, 45, who emigrated from El Salvador 24 years ago. “They’re trying to destroy that.”

The labor and civil rights movements in America grew in tandem, and at Howard, the SEIU says, custodians have been represented by organized labor since around 1945. Other historically black colleges haven’t had much of a union presence, even among faculty — largely because many are in the South, where laws don’t favor unions.

Still, historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) have demonstrated a greater interest in nurturing their communities, according to a forthcoming paper in the History of Education Quarterly, co-authored by Marybeth Gasman, director of the Penn Center for Minority-Serving Institutions.

“African Americans typically have high expectations of HBCUs as these institutions have worked hand and hand with black communities — both supporting each other,” she says.

That’s often come in the form of good jobs for people who might have been barred from other professions on racial grounds.

“A lot of these employees were hired almost as a means of patronage,” says Derryn Moten, a professor of humanities at Alabama State University who has studied African American labor history. “These are people who are graduates of the school, or they are locals in the community. So I think what you will find at many of these schools is that HBCUs probably paid wages or gave people jobs that they would otherwise not have been able to have elsewhere.”

At Howard, custodians make between $30,000 and $40,000 per year, depending on how long they’ve served. It’s not a cushy living: Lopez, who lives just over the D.C. border in Maryland, holds down two jobs, getting to Howard at 6 a.m., and working until 2 p.m., after which she goes to a private school in Silver Spring and works from 4 p.m. until 10 p.m.. A single mom, she says that’s what she needs to do to afford her $1,400 a month rent and support her two children.

Still, those wages are well above the average of $22,590 for a janitor or cleaner in America, and they’re just one of the benefits Howard custodians receive. Lopez and her children have the same health-care plans as faculty and administration, and the university contributes to her 401(k). Howard also waives tuition for workers’ children, who might not otherwise have been able to attend college.

Lopez hopes to take advantage of the tuition policy for her 21-year-old son, who’s completing credits he needs before applying to transfer to Howard. And while Howard says it will grandfather in that policy for current employees, it’s not making promises about future hires, and it’s left Lopez with pangs of doubt.

“I’m not thinking about that anymore,” she says. “We don’t feel safe here, with the job. I don’t want him embarrassed, when he is in class, they say ‘okay, if you want to stay, you have to pay.’”

Other custodians also express frustration, saying they see their roles not just as workers, but as members of a community.

“We look out for our students,” said custodian Debra Banks, who’s worked at Howard for 29 years, and says she carries around a bag of cough drops for students who are feeling sick. When she heard about the transition to the contractor, she says she moved back in with her parents, who live a few blocks away from campus. “I don’t know what’s going to happen,” she says. “Tomorrow they might say ‘forget it, we don’t need you no more.’”

Custodian and handyman Eric Kittrell, 47, looked across Howard’s quad at Founders Library on Tuesday, where the union and the university’s negotiators were hammering out a new contract. “You figure this is a black university, they shouldn’t be doing this,” he said. “What looks good on the outside isn’t always good on the inside.”

And then he turned around and bounded up the steps to Frederick Douglass Memorial Hall, back to work.

To organized labor, moving to a contractor doesn’t have to be as bad as many custodians fear. With tough bargaining and activism like the protest earlier this week, labor officials say workers may hold on to their pay and benefits. SEIU already represents employees of Thompson Hospitality at Lincoln University, a historically black college in Pennsylvania. Lincoln outsourced janitorial work to Thompson last year, and wages and benefits didn’t change much.

Still, union officials say contracting puts workers at far more risk than being directly employed.

“Howard is not guaranteeing anything if Thompson loses the account, and in our experience, contractors flip frequently,” says Julie Karant, a spokeswoman for SEIU’s property services local on the East Coast. “That’s why contracting out puts workers in such jeopardy..[it] subjects workers to a revolving door of employers, who are free to lay them off with no notice or cut wages and benefits.”

In other parts of the academy, unions have even seen contracting out as an opportunity. Universities have increasingly been relying on part-time adjuncts, to cut down on the cost of full-time faculty. Another arm of the SEIU seized upon that frustration to organize Howard’s adjuncts, and earlier this year became the first adjunct union at an HBCU.

Another precedent that gives unions pause, though, about contracting out: Howard hired food services giant Sodexo more than 15 years ago to run its cafeterias. Its workers are members of UNITE-HERE, and their contract is similar to those of custodians represented by SEIU.

It’s not exactly the same, though.

Sarah Jacobson, the UNITE-HERE organizer responsible for the Howard unit, says some Sodexo workers pay full tuition for their children to attend the university where they work. That would be free for a custodian. “In that way, people don’t feel like a part of Howard,” Jacobson says.

That’s what Reina Lopez is afraid of.

“We people stay here because we’re used to having a stable job,” she says. If Thompson were to cut her hours, she says, she might go looking somewhere else for work. But she’s not sure where.