HBCU DIGEST: Howard protest is stuck on stupid

As a group of current and former HBCU presidents and administrators, all of us are frightened by the length and intensity of the protest at Howard University. We know all too well how deferred maintenance issues and the scarcity of money to fix them can create undesirable or even unsafe living situations for students, and that this protest at this school could create momentum for similar discord on our campuses at any given time.

But we also know the urgency of solving those issues when they come to our attention. It is impossible to know every malfunction of a building at any given time of season or operation, but we do know how to direct our staff to resolve issues and to make sure students are taken care of.

Sometimes, communication between our offices, vice-presidents, directors, managers, and line employees breaks down. That can happen because of a missed email, a misinterpreted direction, the absence of one individual from a meeting with key information, or outright laziness at any level of that leadership chain.

It’s never excusable, but it’s also never personal and always fixable.

And this is what makes the protests in Washington so unbelievable that it is nearly comical to those of us who have sat in the seat of ultimate responsibility. The students have made the public believe that issues of maintenance are all at once inexcusable, personal, and unfixable. They deserve credit for their ability to use social media and their endurance in staying in the building and in the makeshift tent city to advance this narrative, but they should equally be called out for how stupidly stubborn their movement has become and how wildly ineffective their tactics will be in ultimately resolving their issues.

The students’ first mistake was centering the issue of mold. Regardless of how lazy our staff can be, or how much money it will require, none of us will ever allow anyone to be exposed to mold. It is way cheaper to clean or replace air conditioners, wash and paint walls, and seal windows than it is to litigate a class action lawsuit for unhealthy living and working conditions.

The second mistake they made was in their choice of which building to take over. If the goal was to win student support for improving living conditions, why would you take the one building where students eat and relax offline? When the students realize that the services and spaces they pay for have been blocked by a protest, they are going to want their money back for those services and spaces.

Howard isn’t responsible for paying any of that back, and you’ll never grow your coalition that way.

Third, and perhaps the dumbest mistake of the protest organizers, was to align their advocacy with the interests of faculty and alumni regarding trustee seats being removed that were once reserved for students, faculty, and graduates. Protestors have suggested that this action is corrupt, uninsightful, and a cover-up by a collection of unfit and incapable leaders at the board level.

If all of that is true, then what the protestors have really done is to guarantee that the most corrupt, uninsightful, unfit, and incapable people at the institution meet and talk more often, plan more often, and direct Howard executives more closely than they typically would under normal circumstances. If the board is a collection of rich, influential, and idiotic predators, then the byproduct will inevitably be students being more pointedly victimized by their administrative incompetence for the long-term, as members work to protect their own images above the satisfaction of paying students.

Our collective experience with boards is that they rarely bend to public pressure because they always have receipts and the protection of knowing that they will always have more information about an institution than any other stakeholder group on campus. If it comes down to a lawsuit, an accreditation inquiry, a health inspection, or any other action requiring public discovery, they won’t be easily taken down for negligence.

We’ve seen HBCU boards move and act impulsively, and pay a heavy price for it; Howard is not one of those boards. We’ve seen presidents and chancellors emotionally detach from the rigor of maintaining popularity among never-satisfied students and alumni. Wayne Frederick is not one of those presidents. Pushing these as talking points, just a year after Howard received so much money and so much attention and made you proud to be a part of its brand, doesn’t add up.

Students, if you are reading this, take some advice from old folks who have been around for a long time trying to lead campuses and students to better lives. The board will not give you what you want because you don’t know and haven’t bothered to learn all of the details behind why you can’t have it.

When we try to explain the nuances of governance, deferred maintenance, tuition control and discounting, public funding and restricted philanthropy, strategic planning and operational infrastructure, all of these things don’t fit the narrative of ‘the students must defeat the administration’ that looks good on social media and in white media, and so you ignore us.

In the end, you’ll leave our institutions discouraged and angry, and you’ll breed a generation of students behind you that will believe your uninformed falsehoods. You’ll force panic on some of our boards into bad short-term decisions that will yield long-term negative impact. You’ll reduce our chances to generate corporate partnerships which help you to get more scholarship support and jobs when you graduate. You’ll reinforce the narrative that Black people are incapable of managing our own institutions.

Go home. Go back to class. Go back to working with the administration for things that you need, before you make all of us look really stupid.