Students at Howard University chanted and sung during a convocation address from former Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comey this morning, the latest example of HBCU students rejecting and disrupting speeches from government officials both former and current.
And several months at US Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and her drowned out commencement speech at Bethune-Cookman University, it is clear that both sides of the campus conversation on HBCU outreach to federal government are playing their roles well, and will not be moved.
It may be difficult for HBCU boards and presidents to plan appearances from actors good and bad from within the DC beltway, and maybe there is a lesson to be learned by administrators on forcing the issue in sacred, public ceremonies like convocation and commencement; but students are doing right by their tradition and their Constitutional right in peaceably protesting these appearances.
Both sides have great expectations to meet from a variety of stakeholders. For presidents and boards, there must be consistent showing that HBCUs are willing to politic and to work with the government in good faith, for the small glimpse that our gamesmanship may help their schools to win small gains in the fight for sustained or increased appropriations.
For Howard, the fight is that much more critical – conversations with Washington insiders suggest that the US Department of Education is considering breaking up the Mecca’s annual and exclusive $232 million appropriation for more even distribution among all HBCUs – a political move design to show as increased support to HBCUs, but something that would be a devastating blow to the nation’s flagship HBCU.
Such a budget cut to Howard would be an unreasonable sacrifice of several of the HBCU community’s signature programs in research, teaching and learning across many industries. It makes perfect sense that Howard President Wayne A.I. Frederick continues to put his presidency on the line in the eyes of students and alumni to advocate against this rumor. Generating support for increased investment in Howard something that keeps his place anchored in the eyes of political supporters and trustees.
But the same is true for Howard students on the other side of that spectrum, who are by enrollment inheritors of a legacy of political and social agitation. In the eyes of their friends and families, and within the soul of their individual political leanings and social sensibilities, they are required to reject people and ideas which present as pro-suffering, pro-subjugation, and pro-marginalization for black communities at home and abroad.
Howard protest is something which has always defined the HBCU experience across the nation, and something which helps to power the engine of black activism across minds and communities well beyond the HBCU borders.
Howard should continue to invite figures like Comey to speak, to teach, and to listen to the views of Howard’s student and faculty braintrust on a variety of issues. And students should continue to reject their presence.
Because for both sides of outreach and protest, it’s a beautiful exercise of the democratic freedom that for too long, black folks in this country were denied. And it is an exercise that we all deserve to approach with complexity and with certainty, and without the assumption that all black folks on all issues should all think alike.
We must be willing to engage in debate that facilitates an enlightened community; one where reason and evidence spur change in views.
— Wayne A. I. Frederick (@HUPrez17) September 22, 2017