The viral housing protests at Howard University tell a familiar story.
When Howard University students returned to school for fall semester, they were met with a plethora of concerning conditions on campus. Not only were there multiple reports of mold taking over dorms, but students also pointed to a blatant lack of safety amidst the pandemic as they struggled to access COVID-19 testing. Now, Howard students are entering the third week of a sit-in to force the administration to respond to their demands, and social media clips of the protest have captured national attention.
But unfortunately, the problem isn’t limited to 2021, or to Howard alone. If you’ve spent a ton of time on Black Twitter — like me — you’ll have seen students at multiple HBCUs talk about god-awful living conditions. It seemed like every time the school year started, people discovered mold, pests, or some other vile shit in on-campus housing, which prompted alumni — and even students who had at least escaped dorm life — sharing on their own horror stories. And aside from the anecdotal evidence, there’s also the fact that Howard was sued by 19 students in 2012 over roaches, rats, and mold in their dorms. Similarly, in 2016, students at Norfolk State University in Virginia alerted officials to a roach infestation in their dorms; in 2018, Hampton University students held a town hall with administration regarding moldy dorms, inedible food, and other issues on the Virginia campus.
At HBCUs, students have been organizing to address poor living or overall educational conditions. In fact, Howard’s sit-in outside of the Blackburn University Center was started by Live Movement, a coalition of HBCU students advocating for educational reform. But there’s a lot to unpack when it comes to why HBCUs have been struggling so much with these issues.
Of course, one of the problems is that many HBCUs are just old — and that includes their buildings. Quinton T. Ross Jr., the president of Alabama State University, told The New York Times earlier this month that the dorm he lived in as a student, which still exists, is 58 years old. Even then, it’s one of the newer buildings on campus, as others are over a century old. While having old buildings by itself isn’t necessarily a problem, upkeep and renovations can be expensive. And HBCUs are often severely underfunded.
Historically, funding HBCUs hasn’t been much of a priority for state or federal governments. While states sometimes say they’ll give billions of dollars to these institutions, money is often diverted by politicians. In June, CBC News reported that an investigation by Tennessee officials found that one of the state’s four HBCUs, Tennessee State University, has been underfunded by about $544 million going back to 1950. Harold Love, a state representative and Tennessee State alum who led the investigation, told CNBC, “That $544 million figure represents not just how much money Tennessee State did not receive from the state — it also represents how much money Tennessee State had to take out of its own reserves to fulfill the [federal] match requirements.”
When HBCUs are so severely underfunded over periods of time, it’s not surprising to see them struggle with issues that you may not find at predominately white universities. As Ross told The Times, “If you don’t start at the same place, then you’re always going to be behind. And when there’s such disparity over time, you usually can’t catch up.”
In recent years, there has been both progress and setbacks in terms of funding HBCUs. During his presidency, Donald Trump signed the FUTURE Act, which renewed over $250 million in funding for colleges serving communities of color, including about $85 million for HBCUs specifically. More recently, there have been reports that President Biden’s administration cut funding for HBCUs by billions, but that isn’t the whole truth.
Right now, Congress is reviewing a $3.5 trillion spending plan from Biden. As reported by PolitiFact, the bill’s original iteration included $45 billion in new funding for HCBUs and other colleges serving communities of color. But on Oct. 5, the Associated Press reported that the latest version only allocated $2 billion. That’s obviously a huge change — but it’s much more complicated than saying Biden alone cut the budget. As Harry Williams, president and CEO of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, an organization that advocates for HBCUs, explained to PolitiFact, “It is not a cut. It will be an increase of $2 billion instead of $45 billion. It’s not a cut, because you can’t cut what we’ve never had.”
In short, the underfunding of HBCUs isn’t due to one person, nor can one person be credited when funds do go through. Like everything else, HBCU funding is caught up in politics.
With Congress failing to do much, other organizations are stepping in. Last week, the NBA announced that its first-ever HBCU Classic will take place during All-Star Weekend in 2022. The game will be a face-off between Howard University and Morgan State University and will be accompanied by a donation of over $1 million to HBCUs. While that money is certainly welcome, it’s a minuscule fraction of the NBA’s profits: According to Investopedia, the NBA made about $8.76 billion in the 2018-19 season alone. Along with the NBA, celebrities, particularly HBCU alumni, are well known for donating; Oprah Winfrey, who attended Tennessee State University, donated $2 million to her former college and its community last year.
Although there’s a lot of focus on money, that isn’t the whole of the conversation. Students at Howard wouldn’t be holding a three week sit-in if their administration listened and properly addressed complaints from the start. And during the course of their sit-in, students have been treated as if they are the problem. Earlier this month, DCist reported that administration officials and police ripped down protesters’ banner, pulled the fire alarm to try to get firefighters to forcibly remove students, and closed Blackburn so no new students could enter to assist those already inside.
In addition, attempts to hold a town hall with administration failed. Rather than Howard officials coming to talk with students, one protester, Tia-Andrea Scott, told DCist they were met with police. An Instagram video from the Live Movement shows students in Blackburn, trying to ask questions to an unidentified school official. One question in particular captures how the problems HBCUs are experiencing — while exacerbated by underfunding — cannot simply be solved with money.
“What do we do on campus if the blue security lights aren’t working and you’re in trouble?” one student asks. The official responds, “Call the police.” To which the student says, “We’re Black. I don’t recommend anyone here to call the police.”
So, yes, HBCUs need funding. The lack of money is certainly a major factor driving problems at universities nationwide. At the same time, there are deeper issues with how administrations approach their students, particularly when it comes to ensuring their safety.
“This isn’t how we should be treated by our university. Howard University is supposed to be illustrious,” Scott told DCist. “But when it comes to protecting the people that are here, and Black issues, clearly they’re not meeting us ... unless media presence or unless everyone is watching.”