A Howard University student was concerned about whether she would get university housing, and wrote an email to the school’s president explaining the predicament she and other students faced. His response stunned her, she said - and touched a nerve on campus and far beyond its borders when she shared the exchange online.
Kendal Hall, a 19-year-old sophomore, said she was in tears Wednesday when she wrote to the university’s president, Wayne A.I. Frederick, but tried to remain measured in her message, and to speak for her fellow students, not just herself. She explained she was told there was no housing, and was worried she might have to transfer, or wind up homeless. "So I beg of you, please just let us know what we are supposed to do?" Hall wrote, according to an image of the email.
"Your tone and tenor is inappropriate," Frederick responded, according to the image. "The appropriate offices to handle this matter are copied and will respond."
In a letter to the campus Thursday, Frederick acknowledged that the housing issue caused "stress and anxiety for several Howard students." He said Howard did not have a housing shortage, though there were issues with room reservations, which the university was resolving. He also noted that Howard was making an investment in its campus housing.
"Our goal is to ensure that students have the most supportive and enjoyable experience possible at Howard," he wrote. "My team and I fell short of this expectation yesterday."
Before Frederick sent that note, though, Hall had posted an image of her initial exchange on social media, and thousands of people responded, retweeting or liking Hall’s tweet. Some used it as a springboard to launch into online complaints about housing, financial aid and the way school officials treat students. On Thursday, students protested in Howard’s iconic Yard, marching to the administration building chanting, "Give us a promise you can keep!" according to video posted on social media.
University spokeswoman Crystal Brown declined to allow a Washington Post reporter and photographer to come to the private university’s campus to interview students.
It wasn’t the first time frustrations had boiled over at Howard, an iconic and much-loved historically black university that has struggled with financial problems that sometimes affect student life. Two years ago, students took to social media to complain about rats, mold, leaks and hassles with financial aid, and held a peaceful sit in at the administration building.
Kenneth Holmes, vice president for student affairs, sent an email to the campus community Wednesday night explaining that the university was experiencing significant demand for campus housing. He thanked students for their patience, and apologized for any "stress, frustration or inconvenience this process may have caused."
"First and foremost, I want to assure you that Howard University has enough on-campus housing capacity to accommodate students’ needs," he said in the note. The university was using a different system for housing reservations this year and had experienced "unforeseen glitches," he wrote.
Holmes was among the Howard officials included in the exchange with Hall, according to a copy of the emails she provided to the Post. His note to the campus community was sent to The Post by a Howard representative.
"I am working closely with the Office of Residence Life and University Housing leadership team to ensure a smooth process henceforth," Holmes wrote in the note. "In order to serve you more promptly, that team is now servicing the remaining requests manually."
Holmes wrote that students who had paid their housing deposit would get a spot on campus for the coming school year, and would learn of their assignment by the end of the month.
The process has left students worried and searching for answers, said Jade Agudosi, president of the Howard University Student Association, who called the school’s housing situation "pretty confusing."
"This is a really, really big concern," she said. "At least in student government, we’ve had students by the boatloads reaching out to us, coming to the office, speaking to us, really concerned about their housing."
Agudosi said university officials’ handling of the matter has come off as "really disconnected" and "careless."
"Howard has a really bad customer service problem," she said. "In interacting with students on a day-to-day basis, or even when issues like this arise, the way in which they resolve these issues . . . sometimes it comes off as being unprofessional."
Another student, Genesis Zimmermon, said frustrated students flooded the residential life office earlier this week, trying to get answers. Those students were locked out, their phone calls to the office were unsuccessful and campus police showed up, according to Zimmermon, who posted a video of the scene to Twitter.
"I just feel as though Howard isn’t going about it the right way," she said.
Brown, the university spokeswoman, said campus police were at the residential life office Wednesday for "the safety of staff and students."
Zimmermon, a political science major, said Wednesday night she had not yet secured housing. The 19-year-old sophomore does not think she can afford to live off campus, and is concerned she will have to leave the school.
"I try to focus on my midterms, because my grades are the thing that matter," Zimmermon said. "But it’s like, how can I focus on that, when I don’t know if I’ll have secure housing next year? Is it even worth it, if I’m not even going to be here next semester, because I don’t have anywhere to live?"
Hall, a computer science major, said she called her mother after a visit to Howard’s residential life office, where she unsuccessfully tried to sort through her issues. She was at lunch with friends when she received a response from Frederick, which left her "shocked."
"I didn’t understand what I did wrong," she said. "It was just highly upsetting. I don’t even know how to explain the feelings I had, because I was already - there’s a lot of emotions with housing already. Then to receive an email like that, it was startling."
Brown, the university spokeswoman, said the president’s exchange with a student was a private conversation, so she did not have insights regarding it. Frederick sent Hall an apology on Thursday, the student said.
Hall had interacted with Frederick before, and said that experience had been positive. She reached out because she thought he could help, saying her parents taught her that when there is a problem, you should go to the top.
Hall said she does not normally use Twitter, but said Thursday she was glad she had posted the exchange.
"People need to realize and see that we’re having a problem here," she said. "If people have solutions and people have things that would help us, students here, it would be greatly appreciated. I know that somebody out there can help us."