Ultimately, the Howard University Board of Trustees is responsible for the failures that led up to the student protests because of their unwillingness to hold the president of HU accountable. In an HU administrative culture which rewards loyalty and discourages integrity and transparency, Howard University student dorms with mice, mold, and flooding are the tip of the iceberg.
I’d like to begin this brief note with a quick introduction to provide context for the Howard University (HU) Blackburn Takeover. Howard University is a private Historically Black University (HBCU) located in Washington DC with an enrollment of around 10,000 and founded in 1867. The formal shared governance structure at HU consists of the HU Board of Trustees, Administration, and Faculty Senate. There are more than 900 members of the HU Faculty Senate. Almost all of the HU AAUP Chapter members are active within the HU Faculty Senate.
As a reminder of some of the national events that happened before the students’ takeover, there was: a contested presidential election, an insurrection, and an ongoing pandemic. Some events that occurred over the last year that provide context specifically for Howard University are, announcement of reaccreditation with the Middle States Commission of Higher Education (MSCHE) in March of 2021, HU Trustee Board elimination of HU faculty, alumni, and student affiliate trustee positions, a university-wide change of accounting systems, an attempted “face to face” semester, GI Bill problems, and a ransomware attack. Predating the problems of the last year, the Howard University faculty had three issues that overlapped with those of the 2021 HU student protestors : failing infrastructure, poor academic services, and the realization that to get almost anything done with the HU Administration requires the threat of public shame and embarrassment.
While HU has had infrastructure and service problems in the past, the severity and cause of many of the problems HU students and faculty complain about today are not due to external factors. They are due to poor decisions made by the HU Administration and Board of Trustees.
The Blackburn takeover started when a number of students occupied the Armour J. Blackburn Center on October 12. The building and surrounding grounds were occupied at any one time by dozens to over 150 students. From my observations on the ground at the takeover, the students were peaceful but determined. They made 4 demands. (1) Permanent reinstatement of the affiliate trustees, (2) a townhall meeting with HU president Dr. Wayne A. I. Frederick and all HU students, (3) immunity from punishment and retaliation for the student protestors, and (4) a plan to deal with student housing. The HU Faculty Senate voted to support the students’ demand of affiliate trustee reinstatement and work with both student protestors and HU alumni on all of their other demands. The takeover lasted 34 days and was the longest student takeover in Howard University history.
The protest happened for two main reasons. The first is an almost complete breakdown in some essential services at Howard University. As mentioned above, the student protest had a partial focus on mold and flooding issues within dorms and a lack of housing options for many other students. While these were included in the student demands, there were other issues that became public as well. These problems included : classrooms and labs with mold and asbestos, and absurdly unethical treatment of contingent faculty. For example, many contingent faculty were working without contracts and had been paid late. They were not paid late by hours or days, but had not received pay for months. In addition, many HU students were also not paid on time. In some cases, students that had worked summer internships were not paid for almost 6 months. As another example, many graduate students in science and engineering departments that were hired through faculty research grants in August received their first paychecks only in late October and early November of 2021. These students were paid over 3 months late and in some instances still have not received back pay.
The payment and contract issues appear to be entirely due to decisions made by the HU Administration. It is not due to a century of racism and underfunding.
These payment issues appear to be the result of a decision made by the HU Administration to change over to a new accounting system – Workday. The system itself seems fine, in fact many other institutions and agencies use the software. The problem was HU’s implementation. Please note these problems began in July of 2021 when workday went live at HU and predate the ransomware attack on HU in September 2021. In addition, the responsibility for maintenance and upkeep of the HU dorms is outsourced to external contractors who replaced a cadre of experienced and seasoned employees per the policy shift of this current HU Administration and Board. These service breakdowns were a major cause of the Blackburn Takeover.
The second cause for the takeover is that in order to get the HU Administration to act with integrity and fix non-trivial problems requires embarrassing or shaming the HU Administration and Board of Trustees. The need for students (and faculty) to go to these extraordinary lengths is seen most clearly in the HU Chemistry Department. The protestors drew attention to dangerous working conditions within the HU Chemistry building – conditions chemistry faculty had complained about to the HU Administration and the HU COO in particular with no success. Within days of the public revelation of the issue on social media, equipment was ordered and work began to improve labs and classrooms.
The protestors have said that it shouldn’t be necessary for students to takeover a building to have their concerns addressed. Faculty have said they shouldn’t have to write donors, granting agencies, politicians, and the media to get HU students paid on time from their research grants.
For years, faculty have tried to use both informal and formal means to alert the HU Administration and Board about the need for change. Howard University’s documents provide mechanisms for shared governance consistent with AAUP standards. In fact there were formal mechanisms for faculty to interact with both the HU Administration and Board of Trustees. In particular, there were faculty, student, and alumni trustee positions until this summer (June 2021), but the positions were then eliminated by the HU Board. In addition to removing the affiliate trustees, the HU Board then added the chair of the HU Faculty Senate, the president of the Howard University Student Association, and the president of the Howard University Alumni Association to the Board’s Academic Excellence Committee. But only if these three individuals signed a Non Disclosure Agreement (NDA). The NDA language included unspecified punishments for the HU Faculty Senate chair and other leaders if, in the opinion of the Board, they discussed any Board sensitive information.
This reflects a general trend of the HU Board to reduce or eliminate transparent accountability measures. In other words, students, faculty, and alumni now have to resort to embarrassing and shaming the HU Administration to get things done, because the HU Administration and Board of Trustees apparently do not want to listen. Ultimately, this is the second major cause of the Blackburn Takeover.
The protest ended with an agreement between the protestors and the HU Administration. The agreement is hidden behind an NDA the students were required to sign. Outside of the student protest leadership, HU Administration, and Board of Trustees, no one knows the outcome. The HU Administration has said it looks forward to moving on. The HU Board has remained silent. There have been slightly more than cosmetic changes to dorm rooms, labs, and classrooms. Some students and contingent faculty are still waiting for back pay or reimbursements. The HU affiliate trustee positions have not been restored.
In the aftermath of the protest, some students and alumni organizations have called for the removal or resignation of Dr. Frederick. It has been the official position of the HU Faculty Senate since 2018 that the HU president (Dr. Frederick), HU provost (Dr. Anthony K. Wutoh), and HU COO (Dr. Tashni Dubroy) should resign because of previous administrative failures which include $200 million in damages due to a decision to apparently not properly winterize the university in 2017/2018. Not surprisingly, the HU Faculty Senate has recommended the reinstatement of all affiliate trustees. Given the widespread accounting system failure and research account errors at HU, it appears that a forensic audit of all HU finances is justified.
As of this writing, I haven’t talked to a single HU researcher whose grant dollar amounts were accurate within the HU workday implementation without corrections.
Finally, in 2018 the HU faculty voted “no confidence” in not only the HU Administration, but also the Executive Committee of the HU Board of Trustees. As the HU Faculty Senate predicted in 2018, it appears that unless there is a fundamental change in the type of trustee on HU’s Board, there will continue to be administrative failures of increasing severity. In particular, for accountability, HU needs trustees that understand, believe in, and will defend AAUP style shared governance.
For any change like this to occur, those interested in supporting HU should demand accountability and integrity from the HU Administration and Board before giving Howard University another dime.
Associate Professor, HU AAUP president, Chair HU Faculty Senate