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Howard University president says Blackburn Center protest must end

Students have staged a sit-in earlier this month over representation and housing issues at the university.

WASHINGTON — Howard University President Dr. Wayne A.I. Frederick is calling for students to end a sit-in protest that has occupied the Blackburn Center on the campus since October 12.

Student demonstrators are demanding representation on the university's board of trustees, and want something to be done to address housing conditions in student dorms.  

In a letter addressed to the Howard community, Dr. Frederick said protests have been have been a part of Howard history, but called the Blackburn sit-in "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," Dr. Frederick wrote in his letter. "The occupation of Blackburn Center must end."

Students released three demands:

  1. In-person town hall with President Frederick and the administration scheduled before the end of October
  2. Reinstate all affiliate trustee positions (students, faculty, and alumni) on the board of trustees with voting power
  3. The president and chairman of the board propose a meeting with student leadership outlining their "housing plan" to protect the incoming classes of Howard's immediate future

RELATED: Howard University students stage sit-in over board representation, housing issues

One of the reasons students are staging the sit-in is because of living conditions in student housing.

"Students have been facing a lot of issues on campus, everything from housing to tuition increases to safety issues on campus, and we feel as though the administration is not listening to us," said Howard senior Erica England with the HU Young Democratic Socialists of America.

Last month, a video showing conditions inside one Howard University dorm room went viral on Twitter. 

RELATED: Video: Howard University student says they've been living in a moldy dorm room

In the video, you can see what looks like a puddle of water in what they say is in the kitchen of the dorm room. Howard University sophomore Thandiwe Abdullah posted the video. 

“We first started noticing water on the floor, I think, two weeks ago. We didn't understand where it was coming from because there was no visible damage to the wall. So, that happened in our closet and in our room area,” Abdullah said when they spoke to WUSA9 in September.

Eventually, Abdullah said a residential assistant moved them into another room, but Abdullah said the arrangement is temporary.

Dr. Frederick addressed housing concerns in his letter, saying university staff are going door-to-door to check on living conditions, and have invited building inspectors and others to check on the conditions at residence halls.

"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," Dr. Frederick said in the letter.

Dr. Frederick called for students to move forward from the Blackburn protest, asking that everyone work together.

"Now is the time for us to work together to reinforce our beloved Howard University," the letter says. "The task facing this and future generations requires us to move forward."

See President Frederick's full letter below:

Dear Howard University Community,

The conclusion of a safe and enjoyable Homecoming season, one that brought together the many different branches of our Howard University community, offers a reminder of what this institution has historically represented and the purpose driving our continued existence.

When Congress signed the charter establishing Howard University in March 1867, it was designed to be a place where the transformative power of education would be shared with a newly emancipated people and all others seeking to improve their lot in life. Our motto of “Truth and Service” has inspired generations of Bison to work toward those ideals in every sphere of life. Generations of Bison have stood on the firm ground of truth and fact to call out societal injustices and address inequities too long obscured or denied by those who rejected our very humanity.

Protest has been a perennial part of our institutional culture. Past and present Bison, motivated by concern for others, have used their platforms as student leaders, to call for change from institutional leadership. Those past movements have taken many forms and were rarely quiet or tranquil affairs, yet they did maintain a fidelity to recognizing objective facts and verifiable truths.

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.

The provost and University’s general counsel met with leaders of the student protest and their legal counsel and engaged in a discussion regarding the path forward. As conveyed at that meeting, the University is willing to continue engaging in substantive conversations with student protesters and leaders regarding their expressed concerns.

The occupation of the Blackburn center must end.

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. 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.

Our administration has not lost focus of our goal to marry the Howard real estate footprint with the Howard brand, and we have already published a campus master plan that speaks to our strategy to do so and the timeline for the same. We are moving towards this goal. Our Howard Forward strategic plan has resulted in more than $2 billion in completed and future renovation capital projects. We are continuously improving our technological infrastructure to support teaching and learning. We remain strongly dedicated to the mission of providing tuition support and world-class training experiences through the cultivation of supportive philanthropic partners.

This is exciting progress and can only be achieved through coming together as one Howard. One Bison. That oneness doesn’t exist without its share of complexity. Regardless of those tensions, respect for one another must always be paramount. We, all, have our part to play in the journey to excellence.

Now is the time for us to work together to reinforce our beloved Howard University. I have committed to expanded regular meetings with student leaders and my team remains in a heightened state of alert to deliver rapid and responsive care to the living and learning conditions of our students. We look forward to working collaboratively to address concerns and build a culture where all are heard.

The task facing this and future generations requires us to move forward.

Excellence in Truth and Service,

Wayne A. I. Frederick, M.D. MBA, Charles R. Drew Professor of Surgery

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