By Gregory L. Coleman
WASHINGTON – In a sharp rebuke to Howard University student leaders who have been leading a of a two-week long student protest at the university by occupying one of the university’s buildings, school President Wayne A. I. Frederick said students can continue to protest, but one part of their actions must stop.
“The occupation of the Blackburn center must end,” Frederick said in a statement Tuesday morning.
Student have been occupying the building since Oct. 13 and in a press conference Monday said they will continue to do so until Frederick and the school’s board of trustees agrees to meet with the student body for an open discussion about housing and student participation on the board.
Student leaders, including the heads of the Howard University Student Association, the Undergraduate Student Assembly and the Live Movement, met with Frederick on Oct. 14, but students said in a press conference Monday they want a larger meeting between the administration and all students before the end of the month.
Other student organizations who are part of the protest include the Young Democratic Socialists of America and the Howard chapter of the NAACP.
In their initial meeting with the president, Frederick told students he would not commit to an open forum, according to a representative of the Hilltop who was in the meeting. According to a story in the Hilltop, Frederick explained that he was uncomfortable with town halls due to previous such meetings that became unruly and counterproductive.
Instead, he offered twice-a-month meetings with the student association, according to the Hilltop and other student leaders and organizations. The student organizations rejected the president’s proposal.
In his statement Tuesday, Frederick acknowledged the earlier meeting and said, “the University is willing to continue engaging in substantive conversations with student protesters and leaders regarding their expressed concerns.”
But, he added, “There is a distinct difference between peaceful protest and freedom of expression and the occupation of a university building that impedes operations and access to essential services and creates health and safety risks.”
Channing Hill, a member of the Howard NAACP, was adamant at the press conference Monday about the needs for an open forum.
“We cannot address demand No. 1, an in-person town hall, if we do not meet with Frederick or the board,” Hill said. “We cannot discuss demand two, calling for the reinstatement of all affiliate trustees on the board if we do not meet with the board.
“We cannot discuss demand three, proposing an effective and comprehensive housing plan, if we cannot discuss it with the people who made the decisions in finding it appropriate that they would out-contract the management of the building.”
To end the protests, the students said they want:
- An in-person town hall with Frederick and administration officials before the end of October.
- For the Howard University Board of Trustees to reinstate all affiliate positions — students, faculty and alumni — on the board with voting power. Those positions were stripped from the board earlier this year.
- The president and chair of the board to propose a meeting with student leadership outlining the university’s housing plan to protect incoming classes of Howard students.
Students and student organizers said they were put off by the president’s refusal to meet in a town hall with the student body.
Demetrick Conyers, a sophomore journalism major, was one of them.
“It’s embarrassing when the president of an HBCU says he’s nervous or uneasy about meeting with students, the people who he signed up to lead and to help on their journey to adulthood and to help in their professional careers,” Conyers said.
“He is a president of Howard University, and we are students of Howard University and, if anything, we should always first and foremost be working in conjunction against all opposition.”
Kymora Olmo Olmo, a political science major, said she and others will continue to cause discord until there is an open forum.
“We want every student’s voice amplified, and until that happens, we will not be going anywhere, and you will continue to lose money,” Olmo said. “We will continue to cause discord and we are going to continue to disrupt the flow of your money because that is the only thing that will get you out of your office.”
One of the students’ major complaints is the lack of on-campus housing and the quality of the housing Such as mold in some dormitories. Students have posted videos of mold on their clothing, bags and walls. A student tweeted about a bad experience sleeping and coughing up blood because of the mold in the vent in the room.
Students said fire sprinklers cut on inadvertently and they were not compensated for the water damage to their belongings.
In response to student concerns about housing, Frederick said in a statement Tuesday,
“While there have only been a small number of documented facilities reports relative to our entire inventory of residence rooms, we are actively inquiring about unreported issues that may be in the residence halls by going door to door to interview and assist each resident.
“The results of our inquiries to date affirm that the issues are not widespread and the vast majority of our students are living comfortably in their rooms.”
Students and student leaders have expressed concerns of reprisals against them for demonstrating. Frederick said he does not have the authority to grant immunity to demonstrators, but that he did believe students should have immunity for academics and when it comes to legal concerns.