Students who’ve occupied Howard University’s (HU) Blackburn University Center for nearly a week have not only gained the support of their peers and faculty but that of some HU alumni, many of whom point to similarities between this and former acts of resistance.
As she assessed what’s known as the Blackburn Takeover, HU alumna Alexis McKenney said students, faculty, and alumni continue to rage against an institution that places profits above the well-being of its students with greater regularity since her days as a member of the HU Resist movement.
In 2018, McKenney and 500 students took over HU’s Administration Building for nine days. Their demands included the resignation of HU President Wayne A.I. Frederick, the creation of a community food pantry, the disarming of campus police and the expansion of on-campus counseling services, among other requests.
Though Frederick and the board of trustees met with HU Resist members and verbally acquiesced to seven out of nine demands, HU Resist members expressed skepticism about the degree to which university officials made substantive changes.
McKenney said actions taken by the university since then, including the recent removal of student, faculty, and alumni seats on the board of trustees, have placed school officials in a better position to make decisions even more detrimental to HU students.
“[The removal of affiliate positions] is a reaction to the organizing we did in 2018 and the current organizing [in] dissent [of] the privatization of the university . . . the selling off of dorms and property and cutting off budgets of faculty and departments,” said McKenney, a 2018 HU graduate.
Two days into the Blackburn Takeover, she visited the Blackburn University Center, spoke with students and offered advice. Since the onset of the protest, the D.C. Mutual Aid Network have provided food and supplies to students who remain inside.
And while she cites the importance of having the combined presence of students, faculty and alumni on the board of trustees, she said community members won’t begin to see real results until Howard makes significant changes within its leadership.
“The foundation of Howard is faulty so we need to continue fighting for an infrastructure shift,” she said.
The Circumstances at Hand
By the time HU’s board of trustees voted in June to eliminate its three alumni, two faculty and two student seats, alumni had served on the board for nearly a century with both students and faculty members serving for more than 50 years.
People assuming these positions participated in shared governance, voting on board appointments and other relevant matters.
Shortly after the board’s announcement, a group of HU alumni formed Howard Alumni United [HAU], an organization dedicated to reversing the board’s course of action.
However, much to their chagrin, HU’s board has since maintained its position, citing studies conducted by an outside consulting firm that deemed affiliate positions ineffective.
The board failed to release, as HAU requested, the findings of the study, board and committee minutes from the deliberation related to the decision, bylaws which immediately preceded the elimination of affiliate board positions and newly formed bylaws.
Months later, at the start of the current academic year, HU faced a housing shortage that sparked outrage online and a protest on the corner of Georgia Avenue and Howard Place in Northwest.
For weeks, students took to social media with photos of flooding in their dorm rooms and mold and mushrooms that some said made them sick.
Blackburn Takeover started on the night of October 12 at the end of an HU Student Association town hall during which students spoke about the board of trustees’ elimination of the affiliates’ positions, housing issues and the request for Frederick’s direct engagement with students. Their demands throughout the sit-in have centered on those issues.
On Saturday, several days after Frederick and other HU administrators met with student leaders and promised future opportunities for dialogue, Aniyah Vines of The Live Movement and Erica England of HU’s Young Democratic Socialists of America urged Frederick to schedule and conduct an open meeting with all students before the end of October.
They also called on university officials to guarantee amnesty to all student protesters and release a concrete plan that would more efficiently house students, eliminate mold and prevent other environmentally hazardous agents from taking over dormitories.
“We’re still inside because none of the things we asked for have been met completely,” England said. “There’s a longer list of demands from students that’s more comprehensive but there are baseline things that really need to happen. There needs to be a time when President Frederick can talk to all students and not just a select number. We haven’t had any guarantees.”
Students, Alumni Describe a Pattern of Failed Leadership
On Oct. 13, HU Vice President for Student Affairs Dr. Cynthia Evers countered the protesters’ perspective, saying 94 percent of dorms are currently occupied. She also said the university has addressed and continues to monitor mold and HVAC issues.
A Student Life Committee town hall has been scheduled for later this month to address the board of trustees issue.
However, some people, like HU alumna Fahima Seck, suggested exercising caution when dealing with HU’s board of trustees, an entity she said no longer reflects the best interests of the university.
Seck, who participated in a 1997 protest at HU’s Administration Building with the late HU alumnus Chadwick Boseman and others, said her support of the Blackburn Takeover stemmed from distress about mold and mushrooms growing in students’ dorms.
The sale of Meridian Hill Hall, Lucy Slowe Hall and George Washington Carver Hall, all of which have occurred since 2014, compelled Seck to speak out against the HU board of trustees.
As she analyzed the Blackburn Takeover and protests of the past, Seck said students fought against forces leveraging Howard’s legacy to handle the bidding of outside agents.
“There’s leadership that doesn’t have a vested interest,” said Seck, a 1999 HU graduate.
“The [addition of the] student and alumni positions [on the board of trustees] were hard-fought efforts [and] they have been eliminated. There are people on that board for whom this is just another position. How can they allow students to live in these horrible conditions?” Seck said.