United States

Student protests heat up at Bethune-Cookman University after split with Ed Reed

A battle over a would-be football coach’s pointed criticisms has roiled Bethune-Cookman University, heating up student protests over broken ventilation systems, inconsistent hot water and mold-infested dorms at the historically Black university.

Pro Football Hall of Famer Ed Reed was ousted from his job at the Daytona Beach, Florida, school last week before he had even formally started it, after he alleged in a profanity-laced social media rebuke that he had arrived to find an unclean office and a trash-strewn campus.

Bethune-Cookman announced Saturday that it was parting ways with Reed, but student demonstrations calling for Reed’s return, as well as repairs to buildings, have only ramped up since then. 

On Tuesday afternoon, more than a dozen students launched a sit-in in White Hall, the campus chapel, and some stayed into early Wednesday morning. On Wednesday afternoon, roughly 40 students on this campus of about 2,700 marched to Daytona Beach City Hall to ask leaders for a meeting about their concerns. 

Students at Bethune-Cookman University protest on Monday.WESH2

Janiya Jones, 21, vice president of the school’s Student Government Association, called Reed’s dismissal “the tipping point” for issues over living conditions that were already simmering. Jones said she has dealt with mold on the ceiling of her room and had her sleep interrupted by coughing fits.

“He put it out there — what we put up with,” she said of Reed. “We’re just fighting for better. We know Bethune-Cookman is capable of giving us that, and we don’t know why we’re not getting it.”  

In recent years, the school has weathered accreditation issues, a credit rating dip and facilities battered by back-to-back hurricanes.

Students accused the university of failing to repair air-conditioning units and malfunctioning elevators. Some students have shared photos on social media and with local outlets of mold on the walls and fungi-covered clothing and sheets in their dorms.

On Wednesday morning, Jones and Wilbert Stubbs, president of the Student Government Association, met with the school’s interim president, Lawrence Drake, about a host of issues, from housing woes to scholarship needs. Jones said that Drake wrote down each of their demands on a whiteboard. 

Janiya Jones.
Janiya Jones said she has dealt with mold on the ceiling of her room.WESH2

Jones said she saw the sit-down as a crucial first step. But she and other students expect the demonstrations to continue until the university addresses their concerns. 

“We won’t stop until a change is made,” said Maya Walker, a senior who participated in Tuesday’s sit-in and Wednesday’s march. “It’s time to start changing. We had a protest five years ago — nothing has changed.”

The university declined to make Drake available for an interview and referred to an open letter posted to its website Tuesday.

Drake’s letter said the school has already begun projects to address hurricane damage and last year contracted with a construction company to determine which facilities should be renovated or torn down.

“Many of our students chose to use this moment to voice their concerns,” Drake wrote. “This administration takes no issue with this. In the coming days, I will meet with student leaders to ensure that we address many of the students’ concerns and answer their questions as honestly as possible.” 

Drake also wrote that the university is days away from announcing its next head football coach.

But Reed, a former safety who played most of his career with the Baltimore Ravens, isn’t ready to walk away.

“I really do want the job back,” he said in a brief phone interview this week. “I didn’t come here to bash anything.” 

Some HBCU supporters have found Reed’s comments short-sighted. On social media, many have argued that his barbs should be placed in the context of structural inequities that have haunted many of the institutions, which were founded to support Black students during an era of racial segregation.

Concerns about inadequate funding of HBCUs have sparked lawsuits in Florida, Mississippi and Maryland. And a growing body of work by academics and journalists has documented the underfunding of public HBCUs. (Although Bethune-Cookman is a private university, the state of Florida awarded $17 million to the school in 2020, and Gov. Ron DeSantis held a news conference there touting the state’s investment.)

Bethune-Cookman University sign.
Bethune-Cookman University has an enrollment of about 2,700 students.Jeff Greenberg / Universal Images Group via Getty Images file

Bethune-Cookman has faced a financial reckoning in the last decade. Six years ago, the university dipped into its reserves to pay for repairs after Hurricane Matthew. In 2021, the university received a $108 million loan from the federal HBCU Capital Financing Project Program to refinance a dorm construction project that otherwise would have cost more than $300 million. 

Many families who send their children to the university are working class. Former Bethune-Cookman President Brent Chite said in 2020 that more than 90% of the students were eligible for Pell Grants, a federal aid program helping low-income households pay for college costs.

Andre Perry, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said the consequences of Black institutions having lower amounts of wealth often show up in facilities and deferred maintenance.

“​​You can certainly hold people accountable,” he said in response to a question about the outcry at Bethune-Cookman. “But we must understand the root causes of the subpar facilities. That’s a lack of resources caused by decades of discrimination. Administrators might be part of the problem, but they are an undeniable part of the solution, as are the students, the alums and everyday citizens.”

Some of the issues Reed identified at Bethune-Cookman are longstanding. While some HBCUs have touted extensive upgrades to their athletic facilities in recent years, student-athletes have said Bethune-Cookman lacked the basics. 

In an YouTube interview with journalist Roland Martin on Monday, some football players alleged that they had to share helmets because the program lacked enough for everyone on the team. There is no practice field; instead of running through drills on campus, the team prepares for games at a nearby stadium.

On Monday afternoon, a group of students gathered in front of the grave of Mary McLeod Bethune, who founded a school for Black girls in 1904 that would later become Bethune-Cookman University. Some prayed. Others had posters. At times, the group chanted, “Hey, hey, ho, ho. The board of trustees has got to go’’ as they marched across the campus to their destination, a statue of McLeod Bethune.

Students at Bethune-Cookman University protest on Monday.
Students at Bethune-Cookman University are demanding that school leaders address living conditions that demonstrators say pose health risks.WESH2

While Reed’s comments mobilized many students, no one was more affected by his departure than the prospective and current members of Bethune-Cookman’s football team. 

Jeremy Greaves, a 17-year-old from Clewiston, Florida, arrived at the university this month as an early enrollee after Reed invited him to an official campus visit. The pending deal between Reed and Bethune-Cookman unraveled before Jeremy could start his first season.

Jeremy said he liked Reed’s pitch of being part of an effort to transform a program that won just two games last season. 

“That dream is gone right now,” said Jeremy, who has participated in the recent campus demonstrations. “I can’t control the situation right now. I do feel kind of helpless.”

Kianna Huey, a 19-year-old sophomore from Orlando, participated in Monday’s protest to urge the university to act more quickly on repairs. Her dorm has sections cordoned off due to hurricane damage. And she’s frustrated that when the air conditioning goes out, students face the choice of dealing with the heat or opening their windows, which she sees as a potential safety risk for first-floor residents.  

Huey said Bethune-Cookman was always on the list of schools she wanted to attend — but she wants the university to make improvements.

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