Hundreds of students at Howard University, a prestigious, historically black college, are occupying the school's administration building after six financial aid employees were fired for misappropriating funds.
The students began the occupation of the building Thursday afternoon and have held the facility for over 24 hours.
Organizer Alexis McKinney, a senior at Howard and leader of the student group HU Resist, noted at a news conference Friday that students had been planning the occupation for months before the financial aid scandal broke, because of other concerns. So news of the embezzlement scandal just "added fuel to the fire."
"It’s more of a systemic issue, there were hundreds of employees that knew about this, that were complicit in this," McKinney said.
The financial aid scandal was first reported in a now-deleted post on Medium, which alleged financial aid employees stole nearly $1 million in funding.
Howard University President Wayne A.I. Frederick released a statement explaining that he had learned of a possible misappropriation of funds in December 2016 and ordered a review.
"The investigation found that from 2007 to 2016, university grants were given to some university employees who also received tuition remission," he wrote. "The audit revealed that the combination of university grants and tuition remission exceeded the total cost of attendance. As a result, some individuals received inappropriate refunds."
The investigation was completed in September 2017 and, as a result, six employees were fired for gross misconduct and neglect of duties, Frederick added.
"We will refer this matter for criminal prosecution, as appropriate," he said.
News of the financial aid scandal infuriated students. "It dropped Wednesday morning — everywhere was crazy, social media was crazy, group chats at Howard were just going off," said Monisola Oyeleke, a 19-year-old freshman. "This whole embezzlement scandal was the icing on the cake."
Students took control of the administration building — allowing campus police and facilities staff to remain — and are refusing to leave until their list of demands is met.
The list of demands includes adequate housing for all students under 21, an end to a rise in tuition fees, campus police to stop carrying weapons, changes to combat rape culture on campus, and the immediate resignation of the president and the school's board of trustees.
Asif Mohiuddin, a 20-year-old sophomore studying chemical engineering at Howard, had spent the night sleeping in a hallway on the ground floor of the administration building, and only left briefly Friday to go to his job.
"It's not like a sudden reaction, [it] has been building up slowly and now it just came to the surface," Asif Mohiuddin told BuzzFeed News.
“I’ve seen my friends having to leave cause of problems of financial aid, friends who’d been accommodated in place that ... [were] not livable," he said. "At some point you are all tired of it. This kind of million-dollar embezzlement, at this point we couldn’t take it anymore. We felt like it was the right time to take the best action."
On Thursday night, Rihanna retweeted video of Howard students singing "Bitch Better Have My Money" in the occupied building.
"It was attention that we needed, we are really grateful for it," Mohiuddin said.
Only people with student IDs are being allowed into the building, where they've taken over the executive offices.
Donations of bottled water, pizza, and snacks were also being dropped off.
"People have basically blocked off entrances, no one is leaving until each demand is met. We are prepared to stay there as long as we can," Oyeleke told BuzzFeed News.
She occupied the building from 3 p.m. to 10 p.m. Thursday, had dropped by again Friday morning, and was planning to head back later in the day.
Howard University tweeted Friday that "all classes will be held as scheduled," despite the protests.
But protest organizers called on students to skip class and continue the building occupation.
“If we can shut down the functionality of the university, they’ll shut down all classes and processes," Juan Demetrixx, a 23-year-old senior and one of the protest organizers, said at a news conference. "If y’all don’t want to go to class, and I know you don’t want to go to class, then come through."
"Howard University has birthed generations of student activists and we will always continue in that spirit, for it is through raising the united voices of our students that Howard scholars have historically created a reverberating impact across the nation and the world," Frederick wrote.
"I am listening to you, and I am challenging my team to make the changes you are expressing a dire need to see. In addition to that, I would like to further increase the engagement with a larger and broader portion of our student body," he added.
But organizers say his response has been inadequate and are still demanding his resignation. They were scheduled to meet with the school board regarding their demands Friday.
"No one was accepting the letter. We all thought it was crap and we are not leaving the building," Oyeleke said.
On Thursday night, students danced in the halls, watched movies — including a documentary about protests at Howard in 1968, played Uno, napped, and did homework, Mohiuddin said. A DJ will be playing in the building Friday, and more deliveries of pizza are expected.
"We’re here to make a political statement. We’re not here just to have fun and turn up," McKinney said at the news conference.