Students at one of America’s top HBCUs are protesting a long list of problems faced by students at the school, including sexual assault, safety, food and the lack of maintenance of campus facilities.
The long-simmering situation at Hampton University is reaching a slow boil, pitting the student body against the university’s leadership and administration. Faced with a maelstrom of criticism over the school’s perceived apathy and lack of concern for the constituents of the heralded Virginia school, the Pirates of Hampton now face a quiet mutiny that has not only manifested itself on campus but has also spilled over onto social media and the public eye.
Hampton trails only Spelman College and Howard University on U.S. News & World Report’s 2018 list of the best HBCUs in America. Founded in 1868, the liberal arts institution of more than 4,600 students is always included in the list of historically black schools known as the “black Ivy League.”
On Feb. 20, Hampton students, frustrated by a number of unaddressed issues, held a town hall meeting to confront the school administration’s seeming indifference to the concerns repeatedly raised by various groups at the school. According to several Hampton students who spoke with The Root, the airing of grievances quickly turned contentious when students felt that Hampton’s leadership was ignoring and belittling their concerns.
One of the more important issues mentioned at the protests and by the students who reached out to The Root was what the students described as a prevailing culture of sexual assault on campus and the administration’s perceived unwillingness to address the issue.
Each freshman and transfer to Hampton is required to take a course called University 101, focused on the tradition of the college. According to the university, the U101 course covers test anxiety, personal finance, the dress code and even the alma mater. The student catalog describes the University 101 course as:
A one-semester required orientation course designed to improve the quality of the freshman experience for entering students by helping them understand the purpose and value of higher education at Hampton University, as well as the larger context in which that education takes place and the multicultural nature of the problems and concerns which it addresses; to develop positive attitudes toward the teaching learning process; and to acquire coping skills essential for successful college life.
Despite the school’s past problems with sexual assault, including a 2014 case of a faculty member allegedly assaulting a student and a report that the school is being investigated by the Department of Education’s Civil Rights Division for violating Title IX campus sexual-violence policies, Hampton still lags behind other schools in informing students about sexual assault on campus.
For comparison, since 2014, Howard University has mandated that all freshmen take Title IX training. According to student organizers, Hampton, in its University 101 course, has chosen to solve its campus problem of sexual misconduct in a unique way:
By not addressing it at all.
Even more troubling, Hampton’s coordinator for Title IX—the law that protects against sexual discrimination in any institution that receives federal funding—is Kelly Harvey-Viney, the daughter of Hampton’s president of 40 years, William Harvey.
Students have complained that her position may conflict with the interests of victims of assault at the school, noting that some students may be reluctant to step forward to complain about rape and sexual assault if the Title IX program is headed by someone more interested in protecting the reputation of the university and its president. In a letter to the administration, the HU Student Collective proposed that the Title IX process for reporting sexual misconduct and understanding consent be embedded in the University 101 course.
Kimberly Burton, a graduating senior at Hampton and one of the many students who contacted The Root, noted: “The campus put up lights and emergency stations around campus to make sure students are safe.” She added, “Many of them—I’m standing in front of one of the emergency stations right now—just don’t work.”
In the Feb. 20 town hall, after a female student described her campus sexual assault and the university’s lack of response, instead of displaying empathy for the alleged victim or issuing an apology, President Harvey chose to interrupt and attack the student in an exchange shared on social media, despite Harvey’s insistence that students not record the proceedings:
In a statement about the summit, the university noted that it “appreciates the bravery of students who come forward to address the important issue of sexual assault.” It added:
The University empathizes with these students and considers this a very important matter. The Title IX Coordinator was present at the meeting and provided the group with an overview of the process. She agreed to provide students with additional educational sessions so they understand the process and feel comfortable with reporting incidents.
After the town hall, the student collective asked that Harvey-Viney resign her position as Hampton’s Title IX program coordinator or be reassigned to another department, citing her relationship with the president and what they see as a conflict of interest.
After witnessing this display of appreciation and empathy, why would any victim of sexual misconduct feel uneasy about taking any complaints to the daughter of this man?
Aside from the unsafe, nonworking lights and call stations, the conditions of facilities on campus have deteriorated into what some campus dwellers feel are hazardous. Students report rampant mold in dorms and unsanitary conditions in the student cafeteria.
Students report that maintenance requests often go unanswered, and the prevailing narrative is that the campus food-service department doesn’t care about cleanliness or the quality of the food.
“I am not a picky eater, but my friends and I bring our own silverware to the cafeteria,” said Burton, who has lived on campus for four years.
A follow-up report by the Student Government Association relayed: “As it relates to the current state of the dining hall, a picture was circulated by a female student which showed bugs on an apple pie tartlet. The bugs were not found until after the student left the dining hall. Therefore, it is not known when the bugs got on the dessert.”
In response, Doretha Spells, Hampton University’s vice president for business affairs and treasurer, noted that neither the dining hall nor Gourmet Services has failed an inspection, and pointed to a planned renovation of facilities, including the dining area.
After the heated Feb. 20 meeting, the administration at Hampton issued a list of proposals that it hoped would address the reported issues. But students felt that the administration’s response was eerily familiar to the previous ways it ignored the concerns. The students decided to counter the proposals with their own manifesto outlining their grievances.
They followed this with a silent march through campus that ended on Harvey’s front lawn and was attended by hundreds of enrollees at the school. In addition, students are using social media to protest and highlight the inaction and indifference at their university.
Although the issues might seem trivial to some, the motivation to protest and change the community of which they are a part is not only laudable but also an important part of the educational process for those who will likely become the next generation of leaders.
“I’d like to invite President Harvey to eat in the cafeteria for one week,” Burton said. “I would love to see him live in the dorms for seven days straight. The school’s response isn’t a way to fix these problems. It’s a way to shut us up. It’s almost like resistance is futile.”
But resistance isn’t futile.