By Nicquel Terry Ellis, CNN
Jasmine Joof said she has been sick with congestion, coughing and headaches for several weeks after discovering the mold growing in her Howard University dorm caused an allergic reaction.
The sophomore said she reported the mold issue to a residential adviser in September, but it was never addressed. So in October, she along with other students facing similar living conditions in their dorms decided they would sleep in tents and air mattresses at the university’s Blackburn Center to protest and demand that officials address their concerns. Some have also complained about flooding, roach and mice infestation and non-working Wifi in their dorms at the historically Black university in Washington, DC.
“It’s active negligence to their students,” said Joof, who’s also a spokeswoman for the #BlackburnTakeover. “They have had every opportunity to fix these dorms.”
Student activists and civil rights leaders say the controversy is indicative of a widespread issue with crumbling buildings on century-old HBCU campuses that are often underfunded compared to predominately White institutions. The Howard protests have gained support from students at other historically Black colleges including Clark Atlanta University, Morehouse and Spelman. The Atlanta-based schools held a joint protest last month against poor living conditions and housing shortages on their own campuses.
The protests at Howard — one of the most prestigious HBCUs in the country — have now been going on for a month. The sit-ins have garnered national attention with lead civil rights activists that include Rev. Jesse Jackson, Rev. William Barber II and Martin Luther King III publicly supporting the students. Jackson was on campus earlier this month attempting to mediate the situation with students and Howard administration.
The student protesters have asked for a meeting or town hall with university officials and for them to provide a comprehensive plan to fix the building issues and be more transparent. More than 4,500 people have signed a petition for Howard to cancel its contract with Corvias Inc., the corporation that maintains and operates residential buildings on campus.
CNN has reached out to Corvias for comment.
While students say the meeting with officials has yet to happen, on Nov. 5, Howard President Wayne A.I. Frederick acknowledged their complaints about the deterioration of dorms and said the university is working to solve some of the issues.
“This is an aging campus,” Frederick said during his state of the university address.
Frederick’s office declined an interview with CNN citing pending litigation.
Some Black leaders say the outcry should signal to lawmakers that the government needs to prioritize funding for HBCUs. According to the Brookings Institution, HBCUs are vastly underfunded due to state underinvestment, lower endowments and lower alumni contributions as a result of lower Black incomes. The U.S. Government Accountability Office reports that HBCUs have an average endowment of $15,000 per student, compared to $410,000 at non-HBCUs.
President Joe Biden’s spending plan in the Build Back Better Act includes $2 billion for educational programs and infrastructure at HBCUs.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she expects the House to pass the legislation by Thanksgiving. The bill will then go to the Senate.
Vice President Kamala Harris, a Howard alumna, declined through aides to comment on the controversy at Howard. During the National Action Network’s Anniversary Awards event, Harris said HBCUs were “critical to our nation’s future” and acknowledged the “historic investment” for them in the Build Back Better framework.
‘Enough is enough’
Leaders from the NAACP are standing in solidarity with the students at Howard.
Wisdom Cole, national director of the NAACP Youth & College Division, said while insufficient funding is a factor in the housing crisis at HBCUs, he questions whether Howard is delegating enough money to its campus buildings.
“This has been a long-lasting issue and this is at a boiling point where students have said enough is enough,” Cole said. “For students who want to be able to be here, to be retained here and to graduate from here, the funds must be allocated appropriately.”
High-profile celebrities and figures such as Sean “Diddy” Combs’ and alumni Eddie C. Brown and C. Sylvia Brown have made headlines for making million-dollar donations to the university.
But some students say the housing woes prove they aren’t seeing all the benefits of the money.
Channing Hill, president of the NAACP student chapter at Howard, said students not only live in aging dorms, but they don’t have access to adequate mental health services and academic advisers are short-staffed in some departments.
Hill said there has been an “unimaginable burden” placed on students and Howard needs to be held accountable.
“Students do not feel safe in their own rooms,” Hill said. “We are dealing with misallocation (of funds). But we’re also dealing with a scarcity issue that has everything to do with the fact that HBCUs need funding.”
Rev. Barber said he recently visited Howard’s campus and prayed with the student protesters.
He said the students have a right to clean, safe housing and the university should be willing to work with the students and address their concerns.
“When I hear that the administration has not had a town hall with them, that’s wrong headed,” Barber said. “These students are simply saying ‘we want these dorms fully inspected and we want them fully cleaned.'”
‘Funding is the key’
Students at other HBCUs are expressing similar concerns with their housing conditions.
In mid-October, students at Clark Atlanta, Morehouse and Spelman held a protest to demand improved student housing from their administrators and that lawmakers provide more funding for their schools.
Alivia Duncan, a senior at Clark Atlanta, said students are living in crumbling buildings with outdated furniture and appliances, water-stained ceiling tiles and mold is often spotted in the dorms.
The university also has a housing shortage, Duncan said. In August, some Clark freshmen arrived on campus to learn that their dorms were still undergoing renovations. The university reportedly had to place those students in off-campus housing.
“Funding is the key to all of this,” Duncan said, adding that it could help the university build and provide more housing. “I’m not saying the schools don’t have responsibility but with more funding, we are able to make sure that all of the (dorms) are up to date.”
Martin Luther King III said HBCUs are overburdened and underfunded and it continues to result in challenges to housing quality. King, a Morehouse alum, said he believes the money in Biden’s spending plan will help schools remediate some of the problems.
“I don’t think it’s just straight negligence,” King said. “In general, HBCUs have never had enough money to do what they need to do.”
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CNN’s Carolyn Sung, Jasmine Wright and Rosalina Nieves contributed.