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Howard is Wrong to Blame Student Protesters for Layoffs

By The Crimson Editorial Board
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board.

Earlier this year, undergraduates at Howard University discovered mushrooms, mildew, and black mold within their dorms. Some students say these glaringly unhygienic housing conditions have led to severe health consequences, including respiratory issues and “coughing blood.” Beyond concerns of subhuman housing, this semester Howard students have dealt with a weeklong WiFi outage, spurts with no running water and air conditioning in muggy dorms, and classroom eyewash stations that spit out putrid, yellow water.

Faced with seemingly unfazed administrators, students took to occupying the Armour J. Blackburn University Center in tents on Oct. 12 to demand the university address their housing concerns. They have not left the building since. Some protesters say they prefer the tents to sordid dorms.

The nearly month-long sit-in has attracted the support of Rev. Jesse Jackson, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Sen. Corey Booker (D-N.J.), and Rep. Ayanna Presley (D-Mass.). We add our support to the mix. No student should be forced to live, let alone complete a degree, in such objectionable conditions.

Yet Howard’s own administrators don’t seem to agree — or, at the very least, don’t seem entirely cognizant of who exactly is at fault for the continued disruption. Just last week, the university’s official Twitter account responded to the protest with a tweet stating that some Blackburn Center subcontracted employees had been fired by their company Sodexo, Inc, as “an unintended consequence” of the occupation. The obvious implication? Workers had lost their jobs because of the protest, and students better cut it out “to avoid more repercussions like this one.” Though passive-aggressive, the university’s message is clear: Accept the shrooms or bear the burden of others’ lost livelihoods.

We find the tweet’s framing absurd and quite frankly suppressive. Not only does it blatantly shift guilt and responsibility for a corporate decision made by a $25 billion company to a handful of young demonstrators, but it also appears to suggest that student needs and workers’ rights are mutually exclusive. Safe university housing isn’t an unreasonable expectation, let alone incompatible with employees’ job security (particularly when tuition and meal plan money are collected at the start of each school year).

Indeed, any of us would be outraged if a landlord failed to address black mold in our apartment; suing would certainly be reasonable. Attempting to guilt-trip demonstrators into conceding their demands through a false oppositional narrative, and by painting basic hygiene expectations as unreasonable, is dishonest and coercive.

Currently, Howard has a ten-year plan to renovate its campus. We understand that not all universities can complete ambitious renovations at the pace Harvard does. Because of America’s past and present racist realities, historically Black colleges and universities like Howard lack the financial heft of historically predominantly white institutions like Harvard. We would be remiss not to acknowledge the long and ugly history which disadvantages schools like Howard but happens to favor our institution.

Despite that notable wealth gap, Howard doesn’t exactly appear to be in an extremely dire financial situation either. The Vice President’s alma mater is perhaps the most financially secure historically Black university in the country, with an endowment of over $700 million as of 2020. Last year, the university also enjoyed a fundraising boost after receiving two of its largest donations ever: a $10 million gift from the Karsh Family Foundation and a whopping $40 million from author and philanthropist MacKenzie Scott allocated, in part, to improve campus infrastructure.

These cash injections don’t dissolve the many structural barriers — such as a declining alumni pool and the diversion, for decades, of deserved state funding — that disadvantage HBCUs. But it does mean that university administrators must have the means to do better, at least by offering stop-gap measures.

An eternal occupation is, of course, untenable. If Howard wants to end the Blackburn Occupation, engaging with students instead of blaming them for a billion-dollar corporations’ hiring and firing decisions seems like a good start. One of the protesters' demands is a town hall with the university president, which he has yet to agree to. A substantive town hall attended by both protest leaders and President Wayne A.I. Frederick is crucial to convey good faith from the University — and no, a town hall on the crisis like that held for Howard parents in late October, where no live questions were taken, doesn’t count.

This situation highlights broader issues with subcontracted university labor and private equity-managed campus housing. Academic institutions, including our own, too frequently use a lack of direct labor affiliation to deflect institutional responsibility for workers who, full-stop, work for us. Relying on companies with a solid track record of safely housing students would also be preferable to continuing to rely on Corvias — a corporation with a shady history including mold-induced long-term health issues birthed in its residences.

Howard owes its students more. We hope that the university’s top administrators will recognize this and move beyond shady tweets and their current hostile approach to student protest.

This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.

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