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One Year Later: How Howard Has Addressed the Demands of the Blackburn Takeover Protest

Students in Howard Plaza Towers East. Photo by Demetrick Conyers.

When the nationally recognized Blackburn Takeover protests ended, many students hoped to see changes on campuses regarding transparent housing plans, a reinstatement of the Board of Trustee student positions, a town hall with President Wayne A. I. Frederick and academic immunity from student code violations related to protesters’ occupation. After the Blackburn Takeover, more than a year later, Howard administration made several changes in response to the demands. 

Residence Hall Conditions

According to The Dig, as of March 29, 2023, the university closed on a $316 million tax – exempt bond transaction that is designed to “address the critical housing needs on campus and work to commensurate student residential environments” in addition to other student needs. 

In July 2022, Howard University ended its partnership with the former management company Corivas and Capstone on Campus Management (COCM). Corvias and COCM were one of three third-party operators for building maintenance. Campus Apartments will now oversee the management and maintenance of all residence halls. A spokesperson at the university confirmed the university did not break its contract with Corivas and COCM, which came at no cost to the university. 

Following the Blackburn Takeover, the university created the Student Housing and Portfolio Management Department to oversee third-party management. 

The university declined to comment on its relationship with Corvias. However, according to Misha Cornelius, the director of public relations, the Office of Residence Life is pleased with its newly expanded partnership with Campus Apartments.

“Born out of the university’s dedication towards forward movement, Howard Forward and improvement. They created my department to oversee the third-party management, housing operators who actually manage the residence halls,” Director of Student Housing and Commercial Portfolio Management, Candy Wongsam, said. Wongsam is a part of the Student Housing Facilities team in the Real Estate Development and Capital Asset Management Department.

Wongsam has created new standards for third-party operators’ maintenance of residence halls. These standards include increased transparency and communication with the implementation of weekly meetings to discuss issues such as work orders and building maintenance. The Housing Facilities team has implemented changes “making sure the standards are clear and not up for interpretation,” Wongsam said. 

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Weekly meetings with third-party operators have always occurred. However, since the transition to Campus Apartments as the sole third-party operator, the housing facilities team’s continued weekly meetings are “more-in depth regarding facilities and include ongoing, active discussion rather than simply receiving one-directional reports,” according to Wongsam. In addition, the department conducts “an internal weekly meeting with the Resident Life and Campus Apartments teams as well since we work hand in hand.” 

Wongsam credited transparency as a foundation for the housing plan moving forward. “I mean,

we don’t have any secrets here. That’s actually one of the reasons why when you have challenges, it’s because you lack transparency. So we have an awesome management team, they definitely don’t lack transparency. They definitely share anything that’s happening in the residence halls with my department,” Wongsam said.

According to Cornelius, Campus Apartments has aided in instituting changes, including “the introduction of standardized resident portal access across all properties, standardized human resources across the facilities, and the ability to consult with a team of experts and leaders on a variety of facility management issues.”

Cornelius says another beneficial impact was “streamlined communication as a result of consolidating the management of the residence halls to one operator.”

Joseph Griffin, a sophomore musical theatre major residing in Howard Plaza Towers, described his experience placing work orders as quick and efficient. When filing a work order for a broken refrigerator, Griffin said the maintenance team resolved it the following day. 

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Griffin noticed a quick turnaround time for individual unit issues, although there were still residence hall issues that prolonged over months without resolution; he said it took a semester for elevators to be repaired.

Griffin, who lived in Bethune Annex last year, had difficulty filling out the work order forms, describing it as a “long lengthy process.” Now, “this semester was a lot easier, and you can fill it out really quickly,” Griffin said.

When asked about reported cases of mold in residence halls, Wongsam stated not all instances reported had been verified and tested as a mold species and referred to them as instances of Suspected Microbial Growth (SMG). Although SMG can appear similar to mold, it can not be labeled as mold because it is untested.  

 The university has aimed to rectify the reported SMG cases and urged students to report any dorm issues to the proper channels in their residence halls electronically, Wongsam added.

The University fully inspects any reported instances of SMG, and takes immediate action to resolve the concern, Wongsam said. She attributed the SMG in the dormitories as a result of rooms being under lockdown for over a year.

“Those things were kind of born out of the fact that the building was closed, there was no air circulation movement, there was no fresh air moving around and circulating. What happens when there’s nobody to report anything,” Wongsam said, “Things could be happening in 900 units, and nobody’s seeing. So, in essence, we are not in the same kind of situation as we were when they returned.”

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Nikkya Taliaferro, a Blackburn Takeover protester, felt Howard’s decision to no longer work with Corvias represents a step forward concerning the housing demand. 

“Only time will tell whether housing conditions will be better,” Taliaferro said.

Upperclassmen Housing

Some students are still left without a solution for upperclassmen on-campus housing. Many upperclassmen have expressed concerns about being unable to secure on-campus housing, and this leaves many students in a vulnerable position as they find housing in DC’s costly market. 

Mackenzie Scott, a junior TV and film major, shared her experience navigating upperclassmen housing availability. 

“Going into my junior year, once you reach that rank, you are under-prioritized. So your application doesn’t open until June,” Scott said. “If you aren’t going to be a Resident Assistant, you don’t know if you are going to live on campus, you have to secure outside of housing because spots fill up fast.”

Scott resorted to “outsourcing to find different places where [she] could live.” While navigating DC’s expensive market, she said, “if you wanted to live close to campus. Either you get lucky enough to find enough roommates, or you’ll have to pay at least $1,200 or more.” 

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Wongsam said despite students’ claims of a housing crisis, the university has availability for upperclassmen housing once the add/drop period for courses passes, for the university to properly account for the number of students occupying the residence halls.

“There’s about 1500 units … slated for upperclassmen housing to be built targeted for 2026,” Wongsam said. “So there’s a lot of things that are gonna look completely different in a few years.” 

Removal of Board of Trustees Positions 

A spokesperson from the university said the university has no plans to reinstate the affiliate Board of Trustee positions. The university removed students and faculty trustee seats in June 2021. In November 2021, the university amended the bylaw, eliminating alumni trustee positions. A month later, ten Howard alumni filed a lawsuit against the university.

The amendment caused an upset among the student and faculty as a line of communication between administration, students and faculty was removed. 

“There are a host of issues that faculty face that they are just not hearing about from the official organizations that faculty need to deliberate on,” Marcus Alfred, an associate professor and chair of the university faculty senate, said. 

A spokesperson from the university said the affiliate Board of Trustee seats were not the only formal line of communication between students and administration. The spokesperson asserted, “there are a variety of student groups on campus that regularly communicate with university leadership, including the Howard University Student Association”

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Following the removal of the affiliate Board of Trustee seats, the university enacted steps to improve student communication. According to a statement from the university, they are increasing communication through “ town halls, more formal engagement with the Faculty Senate, Howard University Student Association and Howard University Alumni Association, and the expansion of the Leadership Academy.”

The university also implemented a comprehensive engagement plan to increase alumni participation in the university. In December 2022, The Board of Trustees created three board initiatives including, the Board of Visitors, the Trustee Candidate Identification Advisory Council (TCIAC) and the Alumni Leadership Academy. 

Donald Temple, a Howard alumnus and the former legal representative for Blackburn Takeover protestors, represents the alumni.

Temple said the lawsuit is a last resort from the alumni to maintain their voice in the decision-making of Howard University. 

“Alumni did everything reasonably and professionally possible to not sue the university that we all love. That included sending a letter to the Chairman of the Board and the university from over 35 former student body leaders, presidents of HUSA, former trustees [and] liberal arts student council presidents from 1960 to 2020,” Temple said. 

Alumni also attempted to see the university-issued consulting report with a private consultant to determine if it was in the university’s best interest to continue hosting affiliate trustee positions on the Board. The alumni never obtained that report. The alumni also asked for a meeting with the chairman of the Board but were only granted a 60-minute “hard stop” meeting, according to Temple. 

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“No meaningful disclosures of information were discussed, and the Board held tight and firm to its positions,” Temple said.

The lawsuit was filed Dec. 25, 2021, and has been stuck in a cycle of filing and remading in the federal courts. This prolonged predicament is due to the federal question raised in the 1867 written charter of the university. The written charter denotes all legal action regarding the university as federally-based. This argument has become the main point of contention between the defendants and plaintiffs, as the latter holds the position that the case should be settled in the DC Superior Courts.

The lawsuit’s outcome is ongoing on how it will affect Howard University’s reinstatement of trustee positions.

Academic Immunity

After the second day of occupation of the Armour J. Blackburn University Center, protesters extended their initial demands to include academic immunity. Aniyah Vines, a Blackburn Takeover leader, said the addition of the academic immunity demand came after the Vice President for Student Affairs, Cynthia Evers, warned students that if they remained in the center unauthorized, they could face expulsion for violating the student code of conduct. 

However, the university said they did not fulfill the protesters demand to provide academic immunity to protesters. 

“Decisions related to grading and fulfillment of specific course requirements are made by faculty. This is true in general, and this practice was maintained for students involved in protests at the Blackburn Center,” a university spokesperson said. 

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Copy edited by Chanice McClover-Lee


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