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Walking alone down 6th Street NW is Ward 8 Councilmember Trayon White, who pauses to confer with students huddled outside Howard University’s administrative offices. They stop him for selfies and handshakes.
At one point he ducks away only to return with a thick wad of cash, which he hands over to a young woman seated just inside the office. Through the glass door, I watch her thumb through it, awestruck. (“We want to make sure that, as they’re standing on the front lines fighting for quality education, that we support them,” he tells me, and later confirms the money was a personal donation.) Behind White, the Mordecai Wyatt Johnson Administration Building—a sprawling brick complex stuccoed by dozens of white posters—betrays little of what’s inside.
But just past its double doors are hundreds of Howard students, by last count 300, planning a resistance movement that has catapulted them into the national spotlight. Many have been there for nearly a week. And the number of them crowding the building’s hallways, waiting outside the offices of administrators and university executives, junior Jason Ajiake tells me, keeps multiplying.
They’re protesting what they call years of chronic neglect of student dormitories, as well as financial mismanagement, police brutality, and administrative opacity. But it’s only been in the last few weeks that the student body’s frustration has publicly reached a fever pitch.
The sit-in was prompted, or at least foretold, by a series of scandals involving Howard leadership this year. In early March, angry students berated university officials online after Howard’s new online housing portal, StarRez, crashed, leaving hundreds to believe they’d be without housing for the coming academic year. Their frustration was compounded by an icy reception from administrators, who allegedly unhooked phone lines and barricaded the doors to Howard’s main office as students lined up outside for answers.
Just weeks later, an anonymous whistleblower operating under the pseudonym Veritas1867 posted a series of financial statements on blogging platform Medium (since removed), which indicated that Howard officials siphoned off up to $1 million of financial aid funds to university employees. President Wayne Frederick recently acknowledged that much of what the blogger posted was true. He did not respond to City Paper’s request for comments by press time.
But what people haven’t seen, students say, is years of failure—failure to properly address deteriorating dormitories; failure to ensure the affordability of student housing; failure to acknowledge and eliminate police injustices; failure to make students’ concerns feel heard and justified.
In January, when students returned from winter break, “things were just different,” Ajiake says. “Buildings were deteriorating quickly, people were describing it as apocalyptic.” A campus-wide alert the university published in February refers to a building “crisis,” adding that winter weather “created a reverberating, university-wide impact that has posed significant challenges in multiple areas of our operations.”
Friends of Ajiake’s who studied in the College of Arts and Sciences had to commute to Chinatown for classes after academic buildings went offline due to maintenance issues. Campus proper, meanwhile, was pockmarked by manholes spewing steam after pipes ruptured underground. “We didn’t know what we were breathing in,” he says. The university delayed the start of the spring semester by a week because heat wasn’t functional on campus, forcing students who returned on time to sleep in icy dorms. Douglass Hall and the Numa Adams Building were also closed completely, the university telling students they “pose a health threat until the repairs are completed.”
“So right from the beginning of the semester,” Ajiake says, “things started out really rough.”
The degradation of existing infrastructure has been exacerbated by the university’s intent to increase its incoming class size by thousands, which students say the school can’t accommodate. Worse, Howard recently sold two of its dorms, Slowe and Carver halls, to developers for non-university residential use. Another vacant dorm, Meridian Hill Hall, recently went to Jair Lynch Real Estate and MacFarlane Partners for a 99-year ground lease that will see the dorm turn into a 200-unit rental building.
Freshman students most impacted by the housing shortage drafted letters to Howard brass detailing their frustration with the application process in emails that have since gone viral.
One wrote: “I have not had heat in my room since last semester … We have had roach problems already and now mice have been in our rooms every night.” Another student described her own housing issues in an email to Frederick, which she also made public online. “I beg of you,” she wrote in an email, which she shared via a tweet now liked nearly 90,000 times, “please just let us know what we are supposed to do?”
Frederick emailed each student back, saying that their “tone and tenor is inappropriate.” “I’m not sure what motivates you to address me in that manner,” he told one student.
Senior Jade Agudosi, president of the Howard University Student Association, says this dynamic has persisted throughout her time at the school, and believes administrators “have a really big issue with customer service [and] don’t communicate professionally or effectively.” (On April 1, Howard’s Twitter account sent this passive-aggressive missive: “Thank you to our dining partner Sodexo for providing water and pizza to our students who are occupying the A building on Thursday and Friday, until our students asked us to stop doing so.”)
The question university officials should be asking is: “At our core, how are we interacting with students?” Agudosi says.
In response, HUResist, the student-led social justice group, organized to solicit feedback from the student body about what they wanted from university officials. If administrators wouldn’t listen of their own volition, students thought, they’d make themselves heard. “Right now, students feel powerless on this campus,” Ajiake tells me from his post outside the administrative office. “Powerless to influence the decisions of the university.”
From the survey, which included responses from 8 percent of the undergrad student body (a figure that represents about 500 students), HUResist developed nine demands they want university administration to meet. Broader in scope than mere housing issues, they address larger concerns about student safety on campus, financial stability, food security, and administrative transparency.
Included in the demands is a call for President Frederick, alongside the executive committee and board of trustees, to resign. “Executive mismanagement and neglect has expedited the deterioration of our beloved university,” the organization writes. (Full-time professors began voting Wednesday on a “no confidence” referendum against Frederick.)
On Sunday, the board of trustees conceded to students’ first demand: to extend the deadline for student housing applications, which require a $200 deposit. The university gave students only a one-day notice, Ajiake says, before the filing deadline this spring. “Students who don’t have immediate access to $200 were disqualified from finding housing,” he says, “and we understand that these are the students least likely to find housing in the first place.”
He anticipates it’s the latter two demands—Frederick’s resignation and the ability for students to directly vote in administrative matters—that’ll be the toughest to negotiate. But he’s optimistic about the outcome, and his colleagues’ tenacity. Inside the office, their revolution wages on.