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Essential Politics: Should Kamala Harris weigh in on the Howard University student protests?

Tents are set up near the Blackburn University Center as students protest poor housing conditions at Howard University
Tents are set up near the Blackburn University Center as students protest poor housing condition on the campus of at Howard University Oct. 25, 2021 in Washington, DC. Students have complained about mold and poor conditions in some dorm rooms and over 100 students have been staging a weeks-long protest to highlight the issues.
(Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Last week, as I drank a warm cup of spiced tea while listening to Rachel Berry’s version of “I’m the Greatest Star,” a tweet from Howard University caught my eye.

The Washington-based institution issued a statement that attributed a recent layoff of some campus dining workers to the student occupation of a university building that is part of a protest over unsanitary conditions in dormitories.

This administration’s blame game ticked off much of the online Howard community, with some alumni urging a particularly prominent and influential graduate — Vice President Kamala Harris — to weigh in on behalf of student protesters.

But should the vice president — who lives just three miles from the protests and used the campus as a backdrop to promote Democrats’ voting rights agenda — enter the fray? What would that look like? How would that tip the scales of a debate over living conditions at “The Mecca,” one of the nation’s most beloved historically Black universities?


Hello, besties.

My name is Erin B. Logan and I cover the White House for The L.A. Times. This is the Essential Politics newsletter — Kamala Harris edition. Today, we are going to talk about the Howard protests and the broader funding issue plaguing HBCUs and other minority-serving institutions.

Why are they protesting?

After a year of remote learning, Howard University students in August returned to campus. I went to campus last week and met Jenesis Finks, a 19-year-old political science major who was excited to attend the Black university whose illustrious reputation dissuaded her from attending the University of Richmond, a predominately white institution.

“But when I got here, that illustrious reputation went down the toilet,” said Finks, whose dorm did not have air conditioning when she arrived in late summer, a notoriously hot and humid time in Washington.

Along with other students, she was aghast at other problems: Dorms, they claim, are infested with rodents, mold and roaches. As part of a burgeoning protest over such conditions, students on Oct. 12 occupied the Blackburn University Center. In a chaotic police action the next day, the university temporarily reclaimed the building. Students were not deterred and reoccupied Blackburn.

The tumultuous police response and what she felt was the university’s lackluster handling of students’ concerns motivated Finks to join dozens of other students to begin sleeping outside Blackburn.

“I hate the cold with a burning passion,” said Finks who has slept in a green tent for at least two weeks. “But even though I hate the cold, it’s necessary because we are fighting for a reason.”

Inside the occupied student center, protesters have repurposed a hallway into a food pantry and a small auditorium as a quiet place to study, and they’ve lined windows and walls with posters mocking university President Wayne A. I. Frederick for collecting more than $1 million in salary. On the front windows, posters also detail their demands, which include a meeting with the school’s leaders to outline future housing plans and an in-person town hall with Frederick. They also are seeking academic and legal immunity for those who participate in the occupation.

A university spokesperson told me that Frederick on Friday hosted a two-hour digital town hall where he answered questions, discussed many of the protesters’ concerns and outlined future capital projects. The spokesperson added that the issues were not widespread and that the university is engaged in a “top-to-bottom review of facility conditions.” The dorms are “undergoing extensive preventative maintenance activities,” the spokesperson said.


Many students told me they have not been pleased with the administration’s response. And to their surprise, their protest has drawn support from influential figures.

NAACP President Derrick Johnson urged “swift attention and due diligence” from campus administrators. Civil rights icon Rev. Jesse Jackson visited the campus earlier this month, seeking to broker a deal with the students and the administration.

Even politicians with no obvious connection to the school have joined the cause — Massachusetts Democrats Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Ayanna Pressley implored the administration to meet students’ demands. Such assistance has further highlighted Harris’ silence. The vice president is not only among the school’s most successful living alumni, she has also long been a champion of historically Black colleges and improving housing standards.

It’s not clear to me why Harris hasn’t publicly weighed in. Her office declined to discuss the issue with me.

Should she take a side?

Harris certainly has a role to play in the protests plaguing her alma mater, said Steve Mobley, a Howard alum and an assistant professor of higher education administration at the University of Alabama. That is because the poor living conditions are not just a problem at Howard. Students at other HCBUs face similar challenges.

These institutions have for decades suffered from chronic underfunding from federal and state governments, Mobley said. Such funding challenges have prevented many of these schools from doing regular maintenance.

They also generally have much smaller endowments compared with the nation’s other private and state universities.

This is due, in part, to a racial wealth gap that prevents many HBCU alumni from donating in the same amounts as those who graduated from historically white colleges and universities. The ten largest HBCU endowments are worth a combined total of about $2 billion. Meanwhile, the ten largest endowments at historically white institutions topped $200 billion.

HBCUs have in recent years gained more national prominence. That is due to widespread protests against systemic racism that were sparked by the murder of George Floyd last year. Beyoncé’s iconic Coachella “Homecoming” performance, which is available on Netflix, also introduced non-Black audiences to HBCU style marching bands, Mobley told me.

In 2019, Congress restored more than $250 million annually to HBCUs and institutions that primarily serve students from marginalized backgrounds.

Advocates say this is not enough to make up for the decades-long chronic underfunding at universities that award 17% of all bachelor’s degrees earned by Black students.

Harris and President Biden have touted their economic agenda as a way to address the historic underfunding, noted Donna Patterson, a scholar at Delaware State University.

An early version of the social spending bill, which is being negotiated by Democrats in Congress, would have given $45 billion to HBCUs and other institutions that mostly serve students from marginalized backgrounds. That figure is now at least $2 billion with the opportunity to get more money through grants, according to the White House. Biden has requested $1.06 billion for HBCU funding for the fiscal year 2022.

As negotiations continue, “those numbers could conceivably change,” Patterson said, adding that the Howard protests underscore “how important [this issue] is, and that it needs to be in that bill.”

All of that is to say — the debate at Howard isn’t just about the school’s unsanitary dorms. It highlights a major inequity in higher education that the Biden-Harris administration is seeking to address, making the vice president’s silence about the Howard student protest all the more conspicuous.

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The latest from the campaign trail

— Following Glenn Youngkin’s victory in Virginia governor’s race, Chris Megerian, Melanie Mason and I reported on how Democrats were decrying Republicans’ focus on critical race theory as a racist dog whistle. We found that Democrats see the GOP‘s focus on this academic framework, which is shorthand for everything the conservatives dislike about racial diversity initiatives, as a continuation of a tactic that has frequently put liberals on the defensive during election season.

—Democrats can obsess about alleged racist dog whistles in Virginia, but that doesn’t explain why New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (a Democrat) won by a very slim margin against his Republican challenger, Jonah Goldberg wrote in a column. A takeaway from last week’s election is that Republicans can win back suburban and independent voters if they talk about real issues, exploit Biden’s weaknesses, and highlight Democrats’ excesses.

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The view from Washington

— On Friday night, Congress passed a bipartisan $1-trillion infrastructure package, marking a major step forward in Biden‘s sweeping economic agenda and the fulfillment of the campaign promise to bring back compromise to a country paralyzed by partisan bickering, Megerian reported.

— On Monday, a Justice Department attorney urged the Supreme Court to dismiss a lawsuit that alleges the constitutional rights of Orange County Muslims were violated because they were targeted for secret surveillance because of their faith, David G. Savage reported. The Biden administration is asking the high court to prevent the case from being heard by a judge or jury because national security would be at risk if the FBI had to explain why it secretly recorded Muslims who gathered for prayer at an Irvine Islamic center after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The argument ran into skepticism from across the court’s ideological divide.

— On Tuesday morning, Harris arrived in Paris as part of an intense fence-mending mission with France, Noah Bierman reported. The French were furious earlier this year when the Biden administration announced a deal to supply Australia with nuclear submarine technology. The agreement led to Australia to back out of a lucrative contract with France to supply diesel submarines. Harris is expected to mend the relationship with America’s oldest ally by attending several days of speeches and ceremonies that commemorate the end of World War I.

The view from California

— A Los Angeles councilwoman could lose 40% of her district under a redistricting plan prepared by an ad hoc committee. In a 6-1 vote, the committee recommended changing Councilwoman Nithya Raman‘s Hollywood Hills district to include parts of Encino and Reseda, David Zahniser reported. Raman, who cast the lone dissenting vote, saidtheproposal resulted from “an overtly politicized process” that had left many residents in the dark.

— Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, who was suspended last month after being indicted on federal bribery and conspiracy charges, can’t vote on the new redistricting map. On Monday, a group of residents from his district blasted city leaders because they will not have a voting representative to advocate for them as political boundaries are being redrawn, Zahniser reported.

Ok besties, that’s it for today! Don’t forget to sign up for our California Politics newsletter to get the best of The Times’ state politics reporting. Also, follow me on Twitter for the latest updates about my cool dog Kacey.

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