Amid controversy, Trump White House meets with HBCU presidents
Black college engagement is first substantive higher ed policy action of the administration
White House officials revealed a new executive order would be signed this week to offer new support to the nation’s 106 historically black colleges and universities, which have long suffered from declining enrollment, drastic budget cuts at state and federal levels and questions of sustainability from philanthropists and families.
Omarosa Manigault, communications director for the White House Office of the Public Liaison and unofficial steward of the burgeoning Trump-HBCU relationship, made the announcement to the audience of black college leaders who collectively and individually have faced criticism from stakeholders about their willingness to meet with the controversial 45th president.
"It's a little more complex than we anticipated, but the president made it very clear to just get it done, and so we are going to get it done," Manigault said.
The order is expected to meet new standards brokered between the White House and several HBCU advocacy groups for long-term outcomes on federal funding and student aid support to more than 290,000 students who attend HBCUs nationwide. It will also relocate the White House Initiative on HBCUs to direct reporting to a senior White House aid, which many advocates say will allow HBCUs to be a top priority in domestic policy considerations.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos told attendees that HBCUs were a vital part of the nation’s growing need to provide greater access to under-resourced communities.
"A key priority for this administration is to create opportunities for communities that are often the most underserved. It's time to shake things up," DeVos said.
DeVos drew widespread criticism hours after the meeting with the presidents when she issued a statement calling HBCUs “pioneers of school choice,” a historically inaccurate statement given that they are federally designated institutions established specifically to support education in the face of state and federal restrictions against African Americans receiving formal teaching post-slavery.
Ignoring the backlash
In spite of negative comments online and in social media from students and alumni, an overwhelming majority of the presidents from the 101 accredited public and private historically black colleges and universities across the country were in attendance for Monday's historic meeting.
This is an optimum opportunity to begin talks with the president while continuing dialog with congressional leaders," said Tennessee State University President Glenda Baskin Glover, in remarks just prior to the meeting. "These individuals have the power to provide access to the funding needed to change the landscape of higher education for a more positive impact on our country's HBCUs.”
In a written statement, representatives from the United Negro College Fund emphasized that the institutions, like the industry overall, "are non-partisan and have worked for many years with presidents and members of Congress of all political persuasions."
"These meetings are also a great opportunity to establish new relationships with new administration officials, Republican and Democratic lawmakers, as well as express appreciation to lawmakers for their past support," the statement continued, adding, "It is important that the HBCU community meet with any new President and his or her Administration- as well as the new Members of Congress who may not be familiar with HBCUs – to educate them about the unique place that HBCUs hold in American higher education and to inform them about the contributions HBCUs are making to the country."
Leaders from HBCUs across the country had the opportunity to advocate for full-funding of the Title III program, the federal program which provides monetary support to the institutions through the annual congressional budget, as well as educate the White House on "the role of HBCUs in revitalizing local communities, from working with K-12 public education, to public safety"; advocate for infrastructure funding to support more STEM professions and workforce development; and note the high success rates of the sector in training teachers for K-12 schools across the country.
UNCF President Dr. Michael Lomax is optimistic about the meeting saying, "President Trump’s administration has expressed an interest in partnering with HBCUs. We welcome that interest and are ready to work with the Trump administration and Congress on critical challenges facing HBCUs and the opportunities that lie ahead."
"Today’s meeting was an important first step toward building a working relationship between the administration, UNCF and America’s HBCUs.We look forward to continued dialogue and meaningful actions to advance HBCUs, including additional resources and investments that will expand the capacity of these historic institutions, which currently produce nearly 20 percent of the nation’s skilled African American undergraduates," he added.
Vice President Mike Pence, who also addressed the convening, called HBCUs transformational institutions in the nation’s history, which introduced the country to the concepts of access and opportunity, and offered a blueprint for educating first-generation college students which is embedded throughout higher education today.
"The path has not been any easy one, and your students and faculty have stood firm through transformational times in the nation history. You've helped lead our country toward a more perfect union," he said. "America is unquestionably stronger because of the institutions represented here. Beginning today, this administration is committed to making sure that HBCUs get the credit and the attention they deserve.”
Officials say the engagement with HBCUs is part of President Trump fulfilling a campaign promise of restoring black communities through workforce development and educational access. The meeting was part of an HBCU Fly-In, an organized introduction between federal legislators and black college campus executives.
Some presidents welcomed the comments from the Trump Administration as a sign of good faith in reaching out to communities which only yielded 8% of its total vote in favor of President Trump during the November elections.
"We had the opportunity to hear from the White House affirming the HBCU mission as a vital part of the nation's educational and workforce strategies," said Shaw University President Tashni Dubroy. "The vice president specifically addressed the critical work of educating first-generation college students, providing access to marginalized communities and shaping the domestic agenda. Those were resonant points which we look forward to developing in the coming months and years."