Historically low winter temperatures blasted the east coast earlier this month, and claimed the Howard University campus as one of its highest-profile victims of burst pipes, overworked heating systems and collapsed infrastructure. But something unique happened between the cold snap and the campus’ bounce back to relatively normal operations: people on campus were informed.
Their awareness may have been accompanied by discomfort, questions, concern and a few grievances, but they were duly informed of the cause, scope and intended remedies for the storm-related damage.
That’s something to celebrate; not because it is impossible for Howard or any HBCU to be transparent amid crisis, but because the HBCU resource challenge makes it virtually impossible to be such.
Infrastructure challenges are not unique to HBCUs, but the capacity to handle them is. Money in endowment accounts, from tuition revenues and in foundation coffers are barely enough to handle operational expenses, much less major infrastructure upgrade needs.
Last January, South Carolina State University’s annual budget request for $26 million included appeals to the state for long-overdue upgrades to heating systems and technology infrastructure. SCSU President James Clark outlined the challenge of making campus improvements in the public sector.
Clark said the project will take a long time. At best, the building won’t be back online until the fall of 2018, he said. He said the odds aren’t good for getting all the money the school’s requested at this time.
“But even if we’re smiled upon, it (the money) wouldn’t show up till around July (2017),” Clark said. Then the university will have to get numerous approvals from various governmental organizations until the work can begin.
Deferred maintenance issues at Southern University made the pages of the Wall Street Journal in June, which showcased the impact of Louisiana’s devastating higher education budget cuts on the flagship historically black system.
Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards visited Louisiana State and Southern last month to tour the deteriorating facilities as he balances stark budget cuts with basic infrastructure needs. A spokesman said he witnessed “pretty deplorable situations” on the campuses.
The state spent $132 million on campus deferred maintenance between 1996 and 2000. Aside from a $119 million infusion after Hurricane Katrina, it next allotted funds—$4.7 million—in 2013, and $18.4 million in 2016.
The challenges are far more difficult for private HBCUs, even large ones like Howard, which have to choose between stop-gap measures to keep antiquated facilities upright and operable, or renovating and replacing them with financing that could take away from hiring new faculty, providing need-based scholarships, or servicing existing debt.
Because we all know HBCUs get shafted on bonds that make these kinds of improvements easier to manage.
In the face of these challenges, Howard’s best shot at keeping the confidence of students, parents and faculty in a rare physical plant meltdown was to be more than transparent about impact, timetables, and addressing individual concerns. And if the blend of press conferences, town hall meetings, press engagement, letters to the campus, calls with alumni and digital updates is any indication, the university is making the most of the part of the crisis which it can effectively control.
And it seems the campus is responding.
Last week, Howard alumni and students’ family members got in touch with the school to offer help, said (Jade) Agudosi, the student association president. And Howard students who had heat and hot water opened their doors to those who needed a warm refuge.
“That is the Howard spirit,” Agudosi said. “Even in spite of all the different challenges that we are facing, we are a resilient campus, and we have a resilient student body. . . . No matter what hardships come our way, we’re always able to weather the storm, literally and figuratively.”