June 2018: Covering Howardgate

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By Gabriel Greschler

Howard University erupted in turmoil after an anonymous Medium article revealed evidence of a massive, nine-year embezzlement scandal in which six Howard University financial aid employees stole one million dollars through skimming money off student grants. We sat down with the Jazmin Goodwin, the editor-in-chief of Howard’s student paper, The Hilltop to talk about how her staff covered the scandal and resulting protests.

The Hilltop: bit.ly/2s6Iuyi

Exclusive interview with Howard President Wayne A.I. Frederick: bit.ly/2Lp9DVL

The Longest student sit-in in Howard’s history comes to an end: bit.ly/2GHXVSV

Gabriel Greschler: On March 27th, 2018, an anonymous user on the online publishing site Medium posted an article that rocked the students, staff and community of Howard University in Washington, D.C. The article revealed evidence of a massive, nine-year long embezzlement scandal. From 2007 to 2016, six Howard financial aid employees stole one million dollars through skimming money off student grants. Protests ensued at the university.

Jazmin Goodwin, a senior at Howard and editor-in-chief of the student newspaper, The Hilltop, saw the anonymous Medium article on Twitter soon after it was published. She knew that her next step was to immediately get a hold of the university president.

I’m Gabriel Greschler, and in this episode of the Student Press Law Center’s podcast, we’re showing how a student paper scrambled to report on a campus crisis and used their unique access as students to cover it. 

GG: So your paper interviewed President Frederick the day after this Medium article was published. How did that all go down?

Jazmin Goodwin: Yeah, well there were a lot of people who were outside of the Howard community, in terms of media outlets, who were trying to aggressively attack the situation and get a hold of the president and have interviews. You had students on campus, student leaders on campus, who were trying to get a hold of the president, get interviews, have conversations. 

So hearing from the president I knew was extremely important…but it wasn’t about being first in terms of having the first interview with the president. It was about having an interview with the president that would provide information that uniquely we as a campus newspaper could provide because we’re actually on the ground.

GG: As Jazmin was interviewing Howard President Wayne Frederick, he confirmed many of the details in the Medium article. Frederick also released a statement the same day as the interview, offering more details into HU’s response. The Hilltop’s staff was constantly pushing out these new developments on Twitter because the paper is published on a weekly basis.. Frederick was first alerted to the missing funds in December 2016, and in response, conducted an internal audit. In September 2017, six HU employees were fired for “gross misconduct and neglect of duties.” 

Jazmin’s interview with Frederick came at a crucial time. Shortly after the Medium post was published, students started calling for his resignation.

JG: I was very much approaching the conversation from just trying to understand. So that was really in my mind in terms of what I asked, how I asked it, and what to me was important. Like students want you to resign. How does that feel? What are your thoughts on that? You are a three time Howard alumnus. Walk me through the feelings, like the personal feelings that you’re feeling. How do you sort of deal with or kind of balance between your emotional ties to Howard as an alumnus but also having to be a leader in the leadership role and removed in a balanced enough sense to be able to make sure that the livelihood of this university is always at the forefront. 

GG: How did you coverage follow after the interview with President Frederick? What did you tell your editors? What did you tell your reporters? What was your game plan?

JG: I would say at the most basic level our game plan was to stay in our lane. As I said before, a lot of media outlets that are like…not, you know, closely associated with Howard, like on the grounds, were really trying to attack this story. Sensationalize it. Got it wrong in many ways. So as a journalist, we really wanted to make sure that we were kind of operating in objectivity. Operating in integrity. And being very steadfast in really getting the facts that mattered, that students wanted to know, alum wanted to know, faculty/staff wanted to know, the community wanted to know. Which is true to our founding and our mission as a publication.

GG: What were you doing as editor-in-chief to make sure your paper was operating the best in this situation?

JG: I think as a student publication, being editor-in-chief, I had to really step up as a leader and lead by example. So this has never happened before. We’ve never experienced this before. So a lot of the coverage I had to take on, like all of the social media updates, for the most part I was breaking all of those. And it was like, it’s almost like you as an editor in chief or whoever are those in executive leadership, may have to go through this situation first and kind of do the reporting, do the covering, kind of figure out what works what doesn’t work. 

I had to show what, you know, being on the ground looked like and what being objective looked like and what being unbiased looked like.

Because we have to use all types of knowledge and smarts when navigating through something like this. You know, we have to use intuitive our intuition, our gut instincts. And yeah I would say that like just doing it and having conversations like, I was consistently having conversations with my staff, providing each other updates. OK. So how do we move? How do we move forward? How do we do this?

GG: When I spoke to Jazmin on the phone as the scandal was unfurling, she talked about the advantages of being a student journalist. Jazmin and her editorial staff—seven students including herself— understood not only the intricacies of the scandal, but the historical context. In response to the Medium article, hundreds of students—organized by the advocacy group HU Resist—occupied the Mordecai Wyatt Johnson Administration Building, known on campus as “the A building”. 

*Audio of 2018 protest*

GG: The protestors stayed for a record-breaking nine days, singing Bitch Better have my money by Rihanna at one point:

*Protesters singing “bitch better have my money”*

GG: Rihanna ended up retweeting that video. HUResist had actually been crafting a list of demands for grievances they had with the university before the Medium article, which included the resignation of President Frederick. The resignation became a focal point after the embezzlement scandal broke, since students were angry Frederick hadn’t publicly announced that money was embezzled. A little over a week after the Medium article, Howard’s Board of Trustees promised to follow through on all of the demands except for Frederick’s resignation.

But this wasn’t the first time students had demanded change at the university, or occupied university buildings. In 1968, exactly 50 years before the current scandal, around 1,000 students occupied the “A” building in response to the university threatening to expel around 40 students accused of disrupting a school ceremony. The students successfully protected the students from being thrown out of Howard. And in 1989, students occupied the same building to call for the firing of trustee Lee Atwater, the then-chairman of the Republican National Committee. Atwater was removed from his position after the protests.

JG: Yeah, I mean it was, you know, being on the grounds definitely is an advantage in general and being able to walk up to the “A” building or to have conversations with classmates or peers and just accessibility to Howard to understand perspective. So like understanding our audience and understanding the people impacted by the situation allows you to better represent it. So having conversations and dialogues about what do students want to know, what are they really looking for in terms of coverage, what their frustrations were.  

You know this happened in 1968 it happened in 1989. This isn’t the first administration building takeover. It’s the longest student sit in, but it’s not the first. And so understanding the interconnectedness of all three of those protests and how the demands were formulated. How the demands, you know, were specific to changes within the university that made student life and the community better and how towards the end they would have, you know, resignation of the president or a specific individual who was involved with, you know, involved with Howard University’s decision making process and executive leadership. You know understanding like was there strategy involved in terms of how you set up the demands and having those demands last. Like all those different things are part of the narrative and that is what was unique about being on this campus just because we knew about 68, we knew about 89. 

This is embedded in our education in terms of understanding the history of how Howard has advanced and progressed. Understanding the history of protest and activism because we’ve always been very protest and activism driven. That really is representative of one of the many Howard ways, you know, in terms of our institution and its legacy. That knowledge, that understanding, that awareness, perspective, and identity, wouldn’t be something that of course your general media outlet could get. 

GG: I asked Jazmin to provide a few examples of her paper’s unique coverage. 

JG: I would say the interview with the president of the university was a highlight, mainly because the simple fact that I am a student at Howard. So there are unique things about the Howard experience, about sentiments that Howard students had … faculty, the community at large had that I was able to properly channel through questions to get more of a personable-ness with the interview. 

We had reporters who slept in the “A” building with these student organizers and protestors. And were giving coverage-by-coverage of what was happening. You know, “you have students sleeping on this floor,” you know, “you have students watching a film commemorating the 1968 “A” building takeover.” So you have an understanding of history taking place. 

Because we were students we were able to go inside the “A” building and witness, observe, experience, ask questions versus outside media outlets that were only to see things from the outside in. 

GG: What was the student reaction to your paper? And what did administrators say about it?

JG: It was well received. And the comments in terms of people like, you know, in our Twitter mentions because we’re very prominent on social media. Specifically Twitter. So, you know, comments like “I actually read the newspaper this year. The Hilltop has been on it.” Like former Hilltop editor in chiefs and staffer are saying, “so proud of this of this year’s staff.”

GG: How did it feel to have past Hilltop alum reach out?

JG: It was gratifying because that was our goal and our intention or at least my vision as editor in chief was, you know, the Hilltop Renaissance. Like paying homage to Zora Neale Hurston, our founder and her affiliation with the Harlem Renaissance. You know, connecting that you know reviving the Hilltop where it’s this renaissance, it’s this robustness of information of content, of creativity, of coverage that students are looking for like we want to talk in students’ language, provide them news in a way that mirrors how we are getting news, how this day and age is getting news. We’re very social media driven and you know as a paper we’re breaking news and ok like breaking the news on social media and just basically staying true to what journalism looks like now. That was very important. Like creativity doesn’t have to be completely drained out of journalism.

*Music transition*

GG: The Hilltop, despite the positive feedback from the campus community, is financially strapped. The situation became so bad that in October 2017, the newspaper ran a front page article titled, “What would you do without the Hilltop?” The paper then refused to print until their requests were met by the university, which culminated in a meeting with top Howard administrators.

JG: We just expressed that this isn’t an attack on the university or the administration. We have just been neglected as a publication for far too long in terms of the basic resources and the things that we need to be able to print each week. To be able to prosper and flourish as a newspaper. And we wanted to take a stand for that and make it known that The Hilltop is a stakeholder in the university, it’s a staple of the black press and 94 years of the history that makes up Howard University. We are no longer just going to accept nothing when we’re giving so much, and tirelessly committed to being the student voice of Howard University and upholding our mission.

GG: Most of the requests by The Hilltop were met by Howard’s administration, including a new printer and computers with updated software. 

JG: And that really set a precedent for the rest of year. And also just how we were able to truly revitalize and rebrand The Hilltop, which was my initial vision as editor-in-chief through saying, “this is The Hilltop renaissance paying homage to the past. To have a better present, moving into a better future.” So things had very full-circle moments in terms of how it all happened and came together. 

GG: These improvements left The Hilltop in a better position to cover the scandal. While the university has reported the six financial aid employees to law enforcement, and institutional changes have been made — like grants needing approval by multiple offices — there are still unanswered questions: Who posted the Medium article? And, whether Frederick would have gone public about the scandal if the Medium article hadn’t been posted.

JG: I can’t really speak to that. I can say that I know from a journalistic perspective, seeing both sides and perspectives shared from a student level, faculty level and alum level, and just the community at large, there were mixed feelings in terms of if students would have ever, or if the university would have ever been made aware of what was going on in terms of the embezzlement. I know that in the interview I had with the president, that he stated that they were preparing to possibly come forward. That they had a statement on boilerplate. 

GG: So, what was the main lesson you learned here as an editor?

JG: Much is required, you know, to whom much is given. So I feel like we knew that from the very beginning. From our own experiences of protest and activism as a paper and that theme has kept us strong and focused. And you know in our lane in terms of what we…what this paper means, what it stands for, what the legacy is, and what it should continue to be. 

GG: Thank you for listening to this episode of the Student Press Law Center’s podcast. Also thank you to Jazmin Goodwin for the interview. Be sure to visit thehilltop.com for more coverage on the 2018 embezzlement scandal. Protest audio by She’s Priceless and The Hilltop HUB. Music by Bolkmar, Nickleus, Guala Beatz, and Plasterbrain. We’ll see you next time!