If it hasn’t perfected anything else, the Trump White House has mastered the art of self-inflicted controversy. Last week’s meeting between presidents of the nation’s historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and President Trump continued the pattern. What should have been a fairly routine meeting between the president and an important group of academic leaders turned into a spectacle that played out as we closed out Black History Month. Touted as the precursor of a new and more expansive presidential Executive Order on Black colleges, the episode turned into an awkward photo op with Trump aide Kelly Anne Conway exhibiting all the lack of tact that suggests an absence of home training, and Education Secretary Betsy De Vos’ mangling of history by equating HBCUs with “school choice.”
What was lost in the awkward optics was the political necessity of these institutional leaders making their voices heard in the nation’s capital. The hyper-hysteria and disdain held by many Blacks toward this administration, and for good reason, cannot distract from the need of HBCUs to access federal resources that they should rightfully claim. What’s at stake is the billions of dollars in federal research grants and also student aid that can help Black students afford a college education. For Howard University, much more is at stake given that it operates under a federal charter and has a line-item in the federal budget that it must protect and in the best of all possible worlds make a convincing argument on Capitol Hill for increased support. After all, federal tax dollars of African-Americans support federal agencies and the government in general. This is our money and not that of this or any president.
While some criticize the meeting as a ploy or public relations stump by President Trump, what should not be dismissed is that the meeting was a pro forma activity in the nation’s capital. The encounter was arranged by three organizations that represent the interests of HBCUs – the Thurgood Marshall Fund; the philanthropy that supports public Black colleges; the United Negro College Fund (UNCF); the fundraising vehicle for private Black colleges and the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education (NAFEO); the representative body for the nation’s Black college presidents. The occupant of the Oval Office, no matter the disfavor in which a president is held, cannot distract from the necessity of the institutions and the legitimacy of their claims for federal support.
Source: U.S. Department of Education
What is truly missing though is the voices of alumni of historically Black colleges. We have no consistent lobbying presence in the nation’s capital and are not a factor in legislators’ weighing the needs of our institutions. It is a glaring omission on our part. We have perfected the practice of returning to our campuses for homecomings, showing up for band competitions and football bowl games, but are missing in action on Capitol Hill. When we do communicate with lawmakers we preach to the choir – members of the Congressional Black Caucus. No effort is made to reach out to Republican legislators which is ironic since it was under President Ronald Reagan that the White House Initiative on Historically Black College and Universities was established by Executive Order 12320. We cannot expect Black college presidents to carry all the weight. Alumni must also engage and invest in advocating for our institutions.
In the early 1980s many of us who were students at HBCUs understood the need to make our voices heard. We marched on the nation’s capital in September of that year to the dismay of many Black college presidents. Why? It was a presidential election year and Democrat Jimmy Carter was up for re-election and he was facing a conservative Republican, Ronald Reagan. We were warned that a demonstration would harm Carter’s re-election bid. That was no concern to us because we hadn’t seen much substantive support for HBCUs out of the Carter White House. Carter issued an Executive Order on Black college that was largely symbolic. Well, Reagan won and our protest mattered little to the outcome since Carter was trounced. Reagan did, however, go on to create the very office that HBCUs now turn to in seeking federal support.
There must also be a greater understanding of where to focus our energies. While the White House, the Department of Education and other federal agencies are obvious targets, we can’t lose sight of the importance of state capitals. This is particularly true for public Black colleges operating under state oversight. The federal government, with the exception of research dollars and the public appropriation for Howard University, provides little direct funding to colleges. States, though, are critical since they directly fund these institutions. No better example exists at the moment than the state of Maryland where HBCUs there are in the settlement phase of a historic federal lawsuit that successfully chronicled the state’s historic neglect of these institutions. We have to turn our attention to those states that are the home to our HBCUs and begin to make our voices heard and our priorities understood by governors and state legislators. This is a lesson I learned well in student government during my days as a student at Morgan State University.
President Trump’s Executive Order, despite his claims beforehand, provides no new funding support for HBCUs and in general is similar to the proclamations issued by his predecessors. However, he has taken the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities out of the Department of Education, the agency through which federal dollars flows to colleges, and placed it in the White House. Lodging the initiative in the White House though means the president is now fully accountable. This move could hurt or help HBCUs, and that remains to be seen. What we do know is that there is a budget process underway for the FY’ 18 budget and despite what the Executive Order may not address, Black college alumni have an opportunity to interject our voices and be clear about the support we expect for HBCUs from Congress and this president.
This is politics. The faces change, as do intentions, but the process remains the same. We are either going to be trapped by our anger and dismay, or step up and do what every other interest group in Washington DC does no matter who sits in the White House – demand the resources they need.