Yedidya Kefale was excited to move into her new home at Howard University in Washington, D.C. until she was hospitalized.
“I was there for a day but I was sick for a few weeks,” Kefale, a first-year student, told TODAY.
She learned her sickness was caused by exposure to mold once she returned to her dorm after testing negative for COVID-19.
“At the time, we didn't even realize there was mold. It was when I came back to my room and then many people were saying there's mold in the vents.”
Mold, mice, flooding and other subpar living conditions riddle the residential buildings on campus, students say, and it’s an issue they've been protesting for decades. Most recently, roughly 150 undergraduates started occupying Blackburn University Center on Oct. 12 in protest of their living conditions. Students say Howard has turned off the water, air conditioning and Wi-Fi in the building.
“I’m transferring as soon as I can,” Kefale said. “I came here so I wouldn’t have to protest. I came here so I didn't have to fight for my education, fight for my basic life, literally basic necessities. For (Howard) to make me fight even more than when I had to back in Seattle, there's no reason for me to be here.”
Channing Hill, a junior who’s a part of The Live Movement campus organization that co-organized the sit-in at the Blackburn Center, said another housing issue is limited availability for upperclassmen, who Howard often tells to make their own housing arrangements.
“To have housing on Howard’s campus is a privilege,” Hill said. “To have housing without rats, mice, mold and mildew on campus is unheard of.”
Howard housing is a longstanding issue
Students have been protesting poor housing conditions for decades. In 2018, students occupied the administration building for nine days before reaching an agreement with the administration who promised to meet their demands, according to NPR. And in 1989, up to 3,000 students occupied the administration building for almost a week over housing conditions and other issues, according to The Washington Post.
Chandler Robinson, a first-year student who is part of The Live Movement, said protests in 2016 and 2017 in addition to 2018 and this year have resurfaced the same issues. Robinson, Hill and Kefale said students have not seen enough action to fix the problems.
Students have been occupying Blackburn for two weeks now. Blackburn Takeover, as the protest is known, issued a list of demands via The Live Movement’s Instagram. The demands include permanently reinstating all affiliate board positions, a town hall with the school's president, legal and academic immunity and Howard leadership sharing a detailed housing plan that fixes the problems.
Frederick wrote: "There may be areas where we agree to disagree. That’s the nature of a vibrant community. However, Howard University’s proud tradition of student protest has never been — and can never be — invoked as a justification for tactics that harm our students. The current occupation of the Armour J. Blackburn Center is a departure from past norms. 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."
Frank Tramble, Howard's vice president and chief communications officer, said in a statement to TODAY that Howard's provost and general counsel met with some protest leaders Monday "and engaged in a discussion regarding their extended protest and a possible path forward. ... The university is willing to continue engaging in substantive conversations with our students regarding their expressed concerns, but the occupation of the Blackburn Center has to end before we agree to do so."
Howard has eight residential halls, at least four of which are recently renovated. But students say that statistic is misleading.
“The buildings themselves aren't in terrible condition. It’s the maintenance of them. And the fact that whenever they renovate them, they do so on a half budget, so the renovation isn't well done," shared Nira Headen, who graduated in May.
Hill said the issue isn’t available funding, but the allocation of those resources. Like most schools, Howard receives annual federal funding and outside donations, including $40 million from Mackenzie Scott last year. Frederick said in his full statement that Howard has allocated $2 billion toward completed and future renovation projects. And more money is on the way from President Joe Biden, who promised funding to Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
Hill said the intake of new money does not correlate to better housing infrastructure: “There's clear mismanagement and misallocation of funds that affects the students.”
"The truth remains that all of our students deserve a best-in-class dormitory experience at Howard, and we will continue to do our best to ensure that they receive it," Frederick said. "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. We have invited a building inspector, elected officials, student leaders, board members, deans, alumni, and media to visit our residence halls and affirm the conditions. We are working with our housing partners to ensure that all maintenance tickets are responded to in an expeditious fashion."
Still, Robinson, Kefale and Hill said students think Howard has been slow to move and unresponsive to Blackburn Takeover other than to tell protestors to leave.
“Hopefully they understand that we are very serious in the fact that we are not moving," Robinson said. "I think they have yet to take us seriously. I think that they see us as children. But we are young adults who are being exposed to hazardous conditions that can affect us for the rest of our lives.”
How alumni and professors are helping
Robinson shared that some alumni are sleeping overnight in Blackburn in solidarity with the protest while other alumni have been vocal on Twitter in support of students.
One alumnus tweeted: “My beloved Howard University is on the wrong side of history this time around. Give these babies what we been asking for since I can remember stepping foot on campus in 2011.”
Scholar Brittney Cooper, a Howard alumna, tweeted, “I love Howard and anyone who knows me knows this. And that is why I stand unequivocally with the students of #BlackburnTakeover and against any attempts by the admin to silence them. Student housing was an issue 20 yrs ago when I was there and for decades before. It has to change.”
Students say Howard has threatened them with legal action if they don’t leave Blackburn and TODAY obtained videos of campus security physically intimidating protestors.
This sit-in is the latest happening. There was a cyberattack at the beginning of the semester that shut down Wi-Fi for one month. Kefale and Robinson said they are still behind in their classes and that internet access regularly goes in and out.
Between the sit-in and shaky Wi-Fi, professors are showing some flexibility. Robinson said some professors have started teaching their classes at the protest and that in general they’re “very understanding” of the Wi-Fi situation because it affects them, too.
Marcus Alfred, a professor of physics and astronomy and chair of the faculty senate, said in a statement to TODAY that the faculty organization is supporting students in a number of ways.
“We voted to recommend that the HU Administration and Board (among other things) address student housing, reinstate affiliate trustees, hold open town halls with students, and neither punish nor retaliate against student protestors,” Alfred wrote in an email, adding that the senate has encouraged colleagues to offer as much academic flexibility to protestors as possible.
In addition to long-standing housing issues, Howard eliminated student, alumni and faculty affiliate positions from the board of trustees in June, a move students say lacks transparency.
“Part of the issue is the university refuses to talk directly to the student body," Hill said. "We have no students, alumni, trustees or representatives on the board. Who does the university even have to listen to? They're not in a position to be accountable to the student body.”
Howard defended the removal of those positions in an Oct. 15 email sent to university students and employees and obtained by TODAY.
“We remain committed to our decisions to update the board structure,” the email said, while adding that over 60% of board members are alumni and past elected student affiliate trustees who were not seated due to the pandemic can still serve their term. “The revised board structure, combined with our determination to broaden our community engagement will allow more — not fewer — voices to be heard.”
Among other demands, students want financial compensation since they are still required to pay the full cost of attendance.
“My ideal scenario is that the president of Howard gets a pay cut,” Kefale said. “Howard compensates everyone for the semester in full because my whole experience here was a terrible one.”
Hill added, “Why is it that I'm paying $48,000 a year, but can't get a room without mold in it?”