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Howard protesters, administrators close to ‘somewhat of an agreement’

After six days, students and trustees have made some progress toward nine demands

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Students at Howard University who have occupied a campus building for a school-record six-plus days said Wednesday night that they are close to an agreement with the school’s administration on a wide range of student-related issues.

Representatives for HU Resist, a student-led social justice coalition, and the Howard University Student Association (HUSA), the university’s student body government, said at a news conference in front of the Mordecai Wyatt Johnson Administration Building (nicknamed the “A” Building), which the students took over March 29, that they’ve come to “somewhat of an agreement” with Howard’s board of trustees on seven of HU Resist’s original nine demands for the university.

On March 25, HU Resist demanded the university provide adequate housing for certain students; freeze tuition costs; develop efforts to prevent sexual assault on campus; create a grievance system for faculty; hire more mental health counselors; combat food insecurity around the Howard community; allow student involvement in policymaking. and disarm campus police. Finally, students demanded the resignation of Howard president Wayne A.I. Frederick and the executive committee of the board of trustees.

While the students wouldn’t divulge which of the seven demands — including the adequate housing provision, which was agreed to by the board of trustees last weekend — had been met, it’s understood that the leadership resignations and disarming of the Howard University Police Department are the two sticking points. HU Resist member Alexis McKinney said at the news conference that the resignations were the student’s largest hurdle, and earlier Wednesday, HUSA president-elect Amos Jackson told The Undefeated that the resignations and campus police were the two largest areas of contention.

“They have been very receptive to our demands, but not, obviously, the eighth one,” HU Resist member Imani Bryant told The Undefeated on Wednesday morning in front of the “A” Building, which the protesters call the “Kwame Ture Student Center” in reference to civil rights activist and Howard alum Stokely Carmichael.

Bryant told The Washington Post earlier this week that Frederick’s resignation was “nonnegotiable,” but it appears some form of middle ground has been found over the past two days, as the sides are working on measures to hold Frederick and the office of the president more transparent in the future.

While the push for Frederick’s ouster has received the most attention over the past week, the students want to make it clear that whoever sits atop the proverbial ivory tower isn’t their No. 1 concern. The protests, they say, are most about increasing transparency among administrations, improving quality of life on campus and giving those same students the power to enact real and powerful change at a university they hold near and dear to their heart.

“It’s not just an issue around the president, because presidents come and go,” current HUSA president Jade Agudosi said at the news conference. “What we’re trying to do is make institutional changes that last far beyond our time at Howard, far beyond the next generation’s.”

Where that can start is the university being more proactive than reactive on issues concerning students. For example, Frederick didn’t acknowledge the misappropriation of financial aid funds that he and his administration had known about for nearly two years until a whistleblower exposed the fraud on March 27.

Jackson said he and others would prefer that the university be transparent about those types of issues right away so that students “won’t have to go to Twitter and go to Instagram and then blow it up,” as the school’s marching band had to do in 2015 to receive scholarship funds and campus housing residents did last month to bring attention to heating and infestation problems. One female-only residence hall, the Harriet Tubman Quadrangle, has had complaints about rats and roaches.

Since last week, members of HU Resist have held nearly daily negotiation meetings with the board of trustees, the shortest lasting six hours until 3 a.m. and the longest being an eight-hour session on Tuesday.

The initial complication for the students in the talks was getting the much older board members to take their demands seriously and understand what is actually happening on the 250-acre campus.

HU Resist alleges that board members were not aware of the severity of issues surrounding sexual assault (the university is currently being sued for its handling of multiple sexual assault allegations), financial aid, and the quality of campus buildings and residence halls. McKinney said there was a “visceral reaction” from the board members when the students informed them of an incident this school year where a Howard University police officer allegedly pulled his gun on a student. (A Howard spokesperson could not be reached for comment.)

“There just wasn’t that connection for them to know that there were issues with financial aid, there wasn’t that connection to know that there’s a sexual assault problem on campus,” McKinney said.

On the first day of negotiations, only two board members showed up, and even then neither had even bothered to read the group’s list of demands. But as the days went on, and it became more clear that the students were prepared and had done their research, the board members became more accommodating. At Tuesday’s meeting, more than eight board members were in attendance, including chairman Stacey J. Mobley.

The current students have been leaning heavily on the actions of Howard activists of the past during the weeklong sit-in. They’ve borrowed techniques and strategies from students who occupied the “A” Building for four days in 1968 to create the African-American studies curriculum and prevent the expulsion of 40 students, and those in 1989 who occupied it for five days to fix financial aid problems and oust Republican National Committee chairman Lee Atwater from the board of trustees. (Who did the students want to replace Atwater with? Bill Cosby.)

“Activism is embedded into the DNA of Howard University. It’s embedded into the DNA of Howard University students,” current HUSA vice president Quentin Mansfield said. “Activism is always going to be a part of Howard. It’s always going to be a part of Howard students’ actions, not only on campus but in the world.”

And the students are not alone. As of Wednesday, at least 70 Howard faculty members had signed a letter of solidarity with HU Resist. On Monday, it was reported by The Washington Post that full-time faculty are expected to begin voting on a no-confidence motion against Frederick on the heels of the university’s Faculty Senate, the elected representative body of faculty, voting for the second time in as many years that they no longer have confidence in Frederick, as well.

The embattled president has received support from the university’s Council of Deans and the Alumni Association.

HU Resist and HUSA hope that, demands notwithstanding, the relationships they are building with the board of trustees will go a long way toward improving the campus for years to come. But when asked whether they thought, in 2018, that they would have to take the same measures against Howard as those students in 1968 and 1989 did, McKinney appeared to envision that big white building 2 miles away from the university before solemnly responding.

“Given the current political climate, nothing surprises me,” McKinney said. “History tends to repeat itself.”

Martenzie is a senior researcher for The Undefeated. His favorite cinematic moment is when Django said "Y'all want to see somethin?"