Students stage protest at Howard University following financial aid scandal

Howard University students have staged a protest and sit-in at the financial aid office, accusing the administration of misleading students and failing to prioritize their needs.

With nine formal demands written up and presented to university officials, student groups are highlighting widespread changes needed at the university, including better living conditions in dorms and more transparency from Howard's administration.

One of the largest and most-organized movements for change in recent university history was sparked by a leaked report that six university employees had been fired following an internal investigation of misappropriation of university-provided financial aid funding.

Howard University President Wayne A.I. Frederick said in a statement on Wednesday that he was alerted in Dec. 2016 that financial aid funds may have been misappropriated and began an investigation.

He said auditors completed their investigation and reported the results in May 2017.

"The investigation found that from 2007 to 2016, University grants were given to some University employees who also received tuition remission," he said.

The audit revealed that for some, the combination of university grants and tuition remission exceeded the total cost of attendance. As a result, some individuals received inappropriate refunds.

The university said it looked into actions of individual employee actions and as a result, six employees were fired from the university "for gross misconduct and neglect of duties. We will refer this matter for criminal prosecution, as appropriate."

Frederick released a statement on March 30 that read in part:

"Dear Howard University Students,

I want you to know that I hear you, and my team and I are committed to being responsive to your needs. 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.

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." READ FULL STATEMENT HERE

Officials said they brought in an outside education firm, Third Coast Higher Education, "to determine if any misappropriation of federal funds occurred. At this point, Third Coast found no misappropriation of federal funds related to this issue."

An anonymous student provided FOX 5 with audio from a sub-cabinet level official at Howard asking the student not to release the information to the public for fear of what it would do to the university's reputation. He also said the problem is much larger than people know.

Student: "When students do something wrong, like if they are caught with weed in their dorm, Howard sends out a press release. Where's that statement about financial aid officers stealing close to a million dollars in financial aid?"

Sub-cabinet member: "Because it's a different meaning. It's a different message to say Howard University is in the middle of a major investigation of hundreds of employees who have been stealing. It's not just eight or nine from my understanding - it's a whole slew of folks.… I know this has been an ongoing thing."

Many students are now questioning how many people knew. They are calling on anyone involved to come forward and are also seeking an independent audit by a third party.

"We are also seeking an independent audit by a third party," said Eric Adeyemon, a sophomore at Howard. "Someone who will look independently at HU's finances to ensure that any other parties responsible for the embezzlement are brought to justice and to ensure that the administration's investigation was complete - because we don't know that since it was a self-report."

"I'm upset," added Naomi Williams, also a sophomore. "I'm furious because I have so many friends here who work 40 hours a week just to finance themselves going here because they had grants removed within their first week here."

Williams then addressed those accused in this scandal.

"I hope that you think about your actions," she said. "I hope you think about how it affected an entire community of students - not just 500 students, not just 1,000 students. It affected an entire university and I hope that you see this situation is quite serious."

The same sentiments were first expressed by the original whistleblower who reported this issue to university president Dr. Wayne Frederick. That person worked in the financial aid office for 2 1/2 years.

FOX 5 has heard audio of their conversation with Dr. Frederick.

Whistleblower: "I could not believe my eyes. Working there I came across information which dealt with administrators who had taken from the student budget."

That person goes on to lay out specific records to give Frederick proof.

Frederick said he would look into the matter. At the time, it was already under investigation by the University.

Howard University officials said they have put several measures in place including:

- Annual budgets for each category of financial aid are now loaded into the University's Banner student information system by the University Budget Office consistent with the University's overall Financial Aid Budget.
- Approval for all awards of University Grants are now reviewed and approved by the Budget Office prior to being awarded by the Financial Aid Office
- Approval for all donor-designated scholarship awards are now reviewed and approved by the Controller's Office prior to being awarded by the Financial Aid Office.
- Approval for all grant-funded financial aid are now reviewed and approved by the University's Grant Accounting Unit prior to being awarded by the Financial Aid Office.
- Access to the Banner financial aid module has now been limited to a small number of appropriate senior University individuals, with adequate third-party review and appropriate segregation of duties.
- An annual reconciliation of awarded financial aid to approved financial aid is now being conducted.
- Management has established proper reporting relationships and segregation of duties within the Financial Aid Office.
- Management is in the process of hiring for all remaining open positions in the Financial Aid Office and enhanced training on policies and procedures will be provided both to new hires and continuing employees.
- A new Associate Provost for Enrollment Management and a new Chief Compliance Officer have been hired by the University.

"While this has been a very difficult and disappointing situation, I know our campus community deserves better and I am committed to ensuring that each of our campus offices operate with integrity and are the best that higher education has to offer," said Frederick.

Students said they will remain in the financial aid building until all nine of their demands are met and Frederick resigns.

FOX 5 has reached out to Frederick for comment, but has not yet heard back as of Thursday night.