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Facing Pervasive Mold, Mice and Pests, Students Enter Second Week of Sit-In at Howard University Demanding Better Housing, Trustee Seats

By Marianna McMurdock | October 26, 2021

Tents are set up near the Blackburn University Center as students protest poor housing conditions at Howard University on Oct. 25, in Washington, D.C. (Getty Images)

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Hundreds of Howard University students have entered their second week occupying a student center, protesting dormitory conditions at the nation’s famed historically Black university.

The sit-in began after returning students reported mold, cockroaches, flooding, collapsed ceilings, mice and maintenance issues this fall. Howard confirmed 34 instances of “suspected fungal growth.” University officials noted the issue affected under 1 percent of on-campus dorm rooms.

Howard also instituted a $2,000 tuition hike this school year, to $28,000.  

Compounded with the removal of student trustee representatives and limited on-campus housing, frustration turned into mass action earlier this month when students occupied the Blackburn Student Center, hanging painted banners reading “enough is enough.”

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Tensions further heightened between students and the university administration last weekend; as thousands attended the homecoming football game, campus police closed entry to the Blackburn student center, which had been occupied in protest for 11 days. 

One officer pushed and threatened unarmed students with a baton in the rush to secure the building. 

In a campus-wide communication this morning, University President Wayne Frederick called for an end to the protests, citing his ongoing conversations with key activists regarding demands and referencing the University’s existing, multi-year housing plan

“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,” Frederick’s statement read. “The occupation of the Blackburn center must end.” 

Instagram accounts suggest students have no intention of ending the sit-in at this time.

Protests continued throughout the campus’s highly anticipated in-person Homecoming — a celebrated multi-day welcome event featuring musicians, performers and alumni. Several musicians with rapper Gucci Mane’s label refused to perform, standing in solidarity with protesters. 

“This whole week we’re supposed to be coming together and being energetic and it’s like, it doesn’t feel right to be a part of that when there are still students without housing, and still students suffering in the housing that they do have,” an anonymous student told The Hilltop, Howard’s student newspaper.

Mold remediation teams have been dispatched to student rooms, yet social media accounts suggested the issue may be more pervasive: Hallways, showers, carpets and air ducts appear lined with mold, according to student Twitter accounts where they also describe difficulty breathing and heavy coughing at night.

An associate professor tweeted that one of his students was diagnosed with “mold-induced asthma.”

At least four of Howard’s main residence facilities are managed by Corvias, a company that partners with public institutions, including the University System of Georgia and U.S. military bases, to renovate and manage infrastructure. 

Student reports of black mold and unsafe living conditions parallel the experience of military families living in Corvias-run housing; several in Fort Bragg, North Carolina are suing the company for $5 million in a class-action suit. 

In 2020, Senator Elizabeth Warren co-wrote a letter to Corvias CEO John Picerne requesting information on how they may have “put profits above public health” and influenced universities’ return plans during the pandemic. 

Student activists demand an in-person town hall with President Frederick before November; the reinstatement of student, faculty and alumni affiliate positions on the board of trustees; legal and academic immunity for protesters; and a meeting between student leaders, Frederick and chair of the board to hear their housing plans for incoming classes “because we all deserve a home at the Mecca.”

Howard’s Board of Trustees removed affiliate representatives in June. Since protests began earlier this month, the faculty senate has voted to collaborate with students and alumni to reinstate these positions, which they describe as a “hard-fought mechanism for shared governance won by former HU students and faculty decades ago.” 

Frederick agreed to students’ final demand, meeting student leaders to discuss housing policy, during a closed-door meeting with select student representatives. He rejected their request for a town hall, saying  multiple times he felt uncomfortable with the idea, suggesting instead biweekly meetings with student representatives. 

“I am a Black girl at a Black college. I came here to this HBCU to escape the oppression of the world, and here I am being physically hurt at a peaceful protest. The chaos has been created by the administration,” an undergraduate said, reflecting on the altercation during a student-led press conference on Oct. 24. “Our demands are not demanding,” she added. 

Over a week has passed without further action since Board president and alumnus Larry Morse issued a statement on the ongoing sit-in, where he pledged a commitment to hearing student voices but did not offer a timeline or specific action regarding future living accommodations. 

“We know we have a gap to bridge in order to meet your expectations and ours. While we may have closed the gap in several areas, challenges remain,” the statement reads.

The board did commit to including student representatives for one-year positions, but did not specify any long-term representation or whether faculty positions would be reinstated.

As temperatures dip to 48 degrees in Washington, D.C., students continue to sleep in tents surrounding Blackburn on “The Yard” in central campus. Many have dubbed the area “tent city”, to remain until needs are met. 

The 74 has compiled student, alumni and community accounts of living conditions and the #BlackburnTakeover:

@chxndler.robinson

This is Howard #howarduniversity #hu25❤️💙 #donotapply

♬ original sound – Chandler

@itzjustautumn

Reply to @babyace2002 they publicly said they support protesting but email their students saying they would be EXPELLED. #howarduniversity #hbcu #howard #blackburntakeover

♬ Oh No – Kreepa

Tents are set up near the Blackburn University Center as students protest living conditions. (Drew Angerer / Getty Images)

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