How the Howard University Protests Hint at the Future of Campus Politics

Students’ weeklong occupation of an administrative building may be a harbinger of tenacious pushback at other colleges.

Howard University's campus
Andrew Harnik / AP

Students at Howard University occupied the campus’s Johnson Administration Building in protest in 1968. They did so again in 1989. Those occupations lasted four and five days, respectively, and ended with varying degrees of success. Now, current Howard students are in day seven of an occupation of their own. It is the longest takeover of the building in the institution’s history.

The dynamics currently driving campus activism are coming to a head at the illustrious historically black university in the nation’s capital. And Howard's experience, and in particular the unprecedented length of the students’ protest—even though the university may never meet their demands—may be a harbinger for the sort of tenacious pushback on long-simmering issues that other college leaders might soon encounter.

In late March, a student organization “dedicated to the liberation of Howard University” called HU Resist released a list of nine demands, which ranged from reasonable to extreme. Some of the demands are broadly reflective of student grievances across the country: The protesters want the administration to do more to address campus sexual assault, provide more support for mental health care, and curb tuition hikes. Other demands were more Howard-specific, and a few of those were quite far-reaching: Students want the power to “directly propose new policies and revise existing policies”; ratify all hiring of administrators, trustees, and faculty; and most of all, they want the resignation of the university’s president, Wayne A.I. Frederick, whom they blame for many of the university’s issues and who, they argue, is too cozy with the Trump administration.

The group posted their demands on Twitter on Sunday, March 25. Then, two days later, scandal struck the campus: An anonymous whistleblower released information alleging that a handful of employees appeared to have, for years, embezzled financial-aid money. The university acknowledged that it had learned of the potential misuse of funds in 2016 and had conducted an investigation. Six employees had been dismissed for “gross misconduct and neglect of duties,” according to a statement from the university. Many students are now wondering why they weren’t alerted sooner, and questioning the university’s commitment to transparency. Two days after that, on Thursday of last week, HU Resist students started to fill the administration building in protest. At 3:04 in the afternoon, HU Resist tweeted: “We’ve taken the administration building #StudentPowerHU.” The occupation had begun.

President Frederick, who had already been speaking to media and issuing statements after the news of the financial-aid scandal spread, responded to a handful of the student grievances the following day. “I want you to know that I hear you, and my team and I are committed to being responsive to your needs,” he wrote in a statement. “I am listening to you, and I am challenging my team to make the changes you are expressing a dire need to see.”

He noted that the campus was in the process of finalizing a new policy regarding the university’s processes and procedures for handling sexual violence and that the university would hire additional student counselors as demand for them grew. But he did not budge on several of the other complaints. The administration, as is often the case on college campuses when students protest, was caught in a difficult position: It may want to hear and address students’ concerns, but it is also faced with the financial and logistical realities of running a university.

Over the next several days, as the protest drew national attention, there was a war of statements. Faculty announced its support of the students. The Council of Deans and the alumni association sided with the administration. Rihanna weighed in (applauding the protesters). Supporters donated water and pizza to keep the students, roughly 400 at any given time, hydrated and fed. And the students have had a handful of meetings with members of the Board of Trustees—one of which ran until after 2 o’clock in the morning.

The students are getting results. Some of their demands have been met, Maya McCollum, a freshman journalism student who is a part of HU Resist’s leadership committee, told me. The university agreed to extend the deadline for submitting housing deposits until May, and if enough students requested campus housing, the institution would delay renovations to accommodate them, according to the student newspaper. But the group is not yet satisfied, and they’re prepared to stick around until they are.

Howard is one of the most recognizable black colleges in the country, and those institutions face their own unique set of challenges. But many of the issues historically black colleges and universities are in no way specific to them. Walter Kimbrough, the president of Dillard University, a private historically black institution in New Orleans, argued last year that higher-education leaders could learn a lot from black colleges, if only they would pay attention. Oftentimes these colleges are written off as a provincial portion of higher education rather than something integral to it, but they have valuable cautionary tales to share.

Kimbrough saw firsthand how one such cautionary tale was overlooked. In November 2016, before the election, Dillard was roiled by controversy following an appearance at a debate on campus by David Duke. “It signaled that we were in an era when rational dialogue and debate had been abandoned for the high of in-your-face confrontation,” Kimbrough wrote, “with social media as an accelerant.” Months later, Middlebury College and the University of California, Berkeley, became similar flash points. Likewise, a previous takeover of the administration building at Howard—the one in 1968—came weeks before the more widely remembered Columbia University occupation.

McCollum says the students are discussing whether to discontinue the protest without all of the demands being met, as students did in 1968, including their chief demand of Frederick’s resignation—though, she noted, the general consensus among protesters right now is that they will not relent without a resignation. The president currently faces a vote of no confidence by the faculty.

The students at Howard see power and want more of it. “This entire protest is dictated not by the resignation of the president,” McCollum says, “but by the ideal of student power, and letting students have a bigger voice on their university’s campus.” What’s striking—as other campuses may soon find—is not what they are asking for, but their commitment to getting it.