Tensions at Howard University reached a boiling point this week as students staged a sit-in over housing conditions they say are so bad that some students have gotten sick, while others have been forced to stay on the streets. The complaints made by students run the gamut from mold infestations, and rats and insects running amuck, to safety concerns, with students questioning why they pay nearly $50,000 a year for such “unlivable” conditions.
Students said they had planned a meeting with administration officials on Tuesday to discuss a list of demands they had regarding the ongoing issues. But according to them, school officials failed to attend the town hall at the Blackburn student center on campus that day. Instead, police showed up and attempted to remove students from the premises. This led to students staging a sit-in at the center and refusing to move until their demands were met.
“We were supposed to get a meeting with administration to discuss how a lot of upperclassmen don’t have housing, and it’s very difficult for lowerclassmen to get housing,” a junior at Howard University who wished to remain anonymous told The Daily Beast. “The conditions in our dorms currently are unlivable. We have mold. People are getting sick, people are getting hospitalized, and there are still students who are homeless. Homeless, as in on the streets. And they’re not being helped.”
“Students are occupying the student center,” said senior Harmony Harris, a musical theater major. “We have a list of demands that we want from the administration. Howard has a track record of not listening to students and not meeting the demands of students and basic human needs.”
The sit-in began Tuesday and was still ongoing as of Friday night.
Among their demands, students are requesting an in-person town hall with the university’s president and administration before the end of October. Students also want all affiliate trustee positions to be reinstated to the Board of Trustees with voting power so that students will have a voice in major decisions concerning the school. Finally, students want university officials to construct a housing plan so that incoming classes will not have to endure similar issues in the future.
A request for comment sent to the Office of University Communications went unanswered Friday. But Cynthia Evers, the university’s vice president for student affairs, denied many of the students’ allegations in a statement earlier this week. She acknowledged that mold had been found in some areas but said it was not widespread and that maintenance crews were already in the midst of eradicating it.
She also said there was no shortage of housing for students, despite numerous complaints from students on the matter. And in response to students’ demands for a meeting with administrators, Evers said school officials had met with students but “the truth is you did not like the honest answers that you received when we met.”
Officials also said in a separate statement that administrators “prioritized meeting with the students over lunch and already addressed many of the concerns this group of students has voiced.”
The situation described by many students is much more dire than anything acknowledged by school officials. Janiah Bowers, a sophomore, said she has been unable to attend any of her communication major classes in-person because the building has been infested with black mold.
To ensure that students’ needs are met, she says that her friends have been “sleeping in sleeping bags, sleeping in tents, sleeping on air mattresses” outside of the Blackburn building.
“I hear from my friends who have to experience all of this, they’re having mold outbreaks in their rooms, in their vents, on their windows. A lot of people, their paintings are getting mold on them, all of their shoes. So, they’re throwing out stuff. The utilities of the apartment building are absolutely horrible. The students are complaining, and workers do not do anything,” she said.
“We’ve also had floods, and people’s rooms have been destroyed and all of their stuff because of the floods. There are showers with mold and mushrooms growing out of it. It’s really unacceptable,” the junior said.
However, according to students, the problems don’t end with mold and mushrooms. The junior also said a cyber attack at the beginning of the school year led to problems obtaining school IDs, which in turn had allegedly led to some unwelcome guests on campus.
“So, it’s been difficult for [the school] to regulate who’s coming in and out, and people who don’t come to the school have been coming into the dorms,” the junior said. “This one man had gotten in and was walking the floor asking girls if he could pay them to take a shower in their room. And he didn’t even go here. There was also a couple found having sex in our stairwell, and they didn’t go here either. I haven’t heard anything that’s been done.”
The Daily Beast could not immediately verify the claim about non-students on campus.
Meanwhile, Howard University just received its largest alumni donation. Together, Eddie C. Brown and C. Sylvia Brown gifted the school $5 million as a part of the Graduation Retention Access to Continued Excellence Grant.
Howard University President Dr. Wayne A. I. Frederick said the money will be used in a grant that has “helped to eliminate financial barriers to education for Howard students.”
Howard also plans to continue rolling forward with its homecoming this year. Alumni will not be present due to the coronavirus pandemic, however.
Students feel incensed that school administrators appear to be acting as if nothing is wrong, despite the myriad complaints.
“We have been protesting for decades at Howard, and the administration doesn’t care about the students,” said Harris, adding that she had been experiencing similar issues at the university since her freshman year.
“When I was a freshman during finals week of my first semester, we didn’t have any water for a couple of days,” she said. “I would have to shower at my aunt’s house or even brush my teeth somewhere else. My mom had to put me in a hotel. We didn’t have any running water in our dorm during finals week. And when we did have running water, it was freezing cold because it was snowing outside.”
Demonstrators at the university say while their complaints have largely been ignored, they fear school officials may punish them for speaking out.
“We’re fearful of retaliation from the university because it’s been a known thing that if they find out your identity, they will make your life very hard and make it very hard for you to stay here,” the junior said. “One of the most important demands is that we have academic immunity. ...In the past, there have been people who have been expelled for expressing their rights. Not only their legal rights, but rights that are written in the student handbook. It’s just very sad because, especially as [a historically Black university], Howard prides themselves on producing leaders like Kwame Ture and seek revolutionary people. But when we do it, it’s a problem. ‘Do as we say and not as we teach.’ It’s very disheartening.”
Evers, in an Oct. 13 email seen by The Daily Beast, appeared to single out demonstrators, writing that a group of students had “committed multiple violations of the Student Code of Conduct,” including with a “failure to comply with University or civil authority” and “disorderly or disruptive conduct.” She noted that her email served as a “warning,” and that protesters risked “consequences up to and including expulsion from the university.”
The junior, who is a legacy student, said, “Howard sold us a dream, and what we’re trying to do is make it a reality. It shouldn’t be this hard—coming to an HBCU, where we’re supposed to be protected and nurtured coming into ourselves as young Black people. We have to go out into the world and fight for our lives. We shouldn’t have to do it here too.”
Nonetheless, they’re adamant about fighting for the university.
“I worked so hard to get here. And a lot of my peers have fought very hard to get here,” the junior said. “And we’re going to fight to stay here.”
Harris prides Howard on its cultural history, but she acknowledged that the school needs to make vast improvements.
“I don’t believe that things like basic human needs are things we should have to worry about. All we should have to worry about is our studies. Since my freshman year, I loved Howard. But just because you love something doesn’t mean you don’t want it to change.”
“And now going to Howard and seeing how it is and I see people touring the building, I’m so hesitant,” Bowers said. “It’s like a glass capsule: It’s beautiful on the outside, but when you go out there and accidentally make a crack, it just all falls apart. … With all of the money [the school is] receiving, with all of the support from everywhere and from corporations, things should be better. But it looks like it’s going in somebody’s pocket and not the students.”
“It’s not magical anymore.”