Nation & World

White House scales back HBCU event amid protests over Trump’s actions

President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with a bipartisan group of lawmakers in the Cabinet Room of the White House Wednesday.
President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with a bipartisan group of lawmakers in the Cabinet Room of the White House Wednesday. AP

The White House has significantly scaled back an annual gathering of the nation’s historically black colleges presidents and advocates after a series of potentially offensive actions by President Donald Trump, including his much maligned statement this summer on the deadly race-fueled rally in Charlottesville, Va.

Organizers worried some presidents would not attend and students would protest this week’s event, initially scheduled to be held at a hotel just outside the nation’s capital, according to three people familiar with the situation.

Instead, the summit will be held Monday at the White House complex, where only invited guests who undergo a background check will be allowed to attend.

Rep. Alma Adams, D-N.C., co-chair of the Bipartisan Congressional Historically Black College and University Caucus, said she had heard some students had planned to protest and that some presidents who attended a meeting with Trump in February “were rebuked by students, and even by some graduates.”

At the summit, the White House is expected to announce a long-awaited executive director for the White House Initiative on HBCUs, said Omarosa Manigault-Newman, director of communications for the White House’s Office of Public Liaison. The administration also may name a new federal employee who will work on HBCU issues at the Department of Education and appointees to an HBCU advisory board, according to several sources familiar with announcement.

“This more intimate HBCU week will feature a series of strategic meetings for students and leaders to share their perspectives on the opportunities and challenges facing the HBCU community,” the administration said in a statement. A full conference is still expected to be held later, official said.

President Trump signed an executive order aimed at bolstering historically black colleges and universities by moving the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities from the Department of Education to the White House. "T

Trump, who will be in New York for the United National General Assembly meeting, is not expected to attend. The president signed a proclamation designating this week as HBCU week.

“The president has remained commited to the HBCU community,” said a senior administration official. “He is strong and unwavering in his support.”

The event comes after Trump, who won 8 percent of the African American vote last year, blamed many sides for the violence at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, including some of the people who showed up to protest hate groups. And he pardoned former Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, a supporter convicted of criminal contempt after he refused to stop targeting immigrants in the country illegally.

Marybeth Gasman, director of the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions at the University of Pennsylvania, said the administration at first saying the conference was on and then downsizing is more evidence that “everything that is happening with the Trump administration is haphazard and (it’s) sort of flying by the seat of its pants.”

“It’s incredibly disrespectful to HBCUs, incredibly disrespectful to black college leaders, and very disrespectful to African Americans in general to sort of do things that are not planned in advance, that are not well thought out,” Gasman said. “I’ve had some HBCU leaders call me and say ‘What do you think about this conference, should I go?’”

Trump vowed to out-do the nation’s first black president, Barack Obama, in supporting the nation’s historically black colleges when he signed an executive order in February to place oversight of the schools directly in the White House. But college leaders were dismayed after the administration failed to quickly follow through.

Several HBCU leaders and lawmakers, including those from the Congressional Black Caucus, the United Negro College Fund and the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, called for the White House to postpone the event. Traditionally, the executive director has helped plan the event.

Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., president and CEO of Thurgood Marshall College Fund, the largest organization exclusively representing the black college community, wrote in an op-ed this week that he reached the same conclusion after speaking with many of presidents and chancellors.

“We asked the Trump administration to consider postponing the conference, because there is legitimate concern that some may want to use this event to protest, boycott or much worse, refuse to work with the Trump administration and the Republican-controlled Congress,” he wrote in blackpressUSA.

Taylor said in a statement to McClatchy that he is “confident the HBCU president/chancellor community members will not allow their personal feelings about any White House decision or comment to override doing what is in the best interest of their students and institutions.”

Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-La., the Congressional Black Caucus chairman, went beyond calling for the White House conference's postponement.

“Not only do I think it should be postponed, it shouldn't have been happening in the first place. This White House isn't serious about improving our HBCUs,” he said. “They brought all those HBCU presidents to town. They took a picture in the Oval Office. And then they did nothing.’

The senior administration official said the call to postpone the summit is “baffling” because no one called for the postponement of the other 2,700 federal programs designed to assist African-Americans.

“We weren’t going to get into the habit or the practice of postponing programs that are critical,” said the official with knowledge of the situation but not authorized to speak publicly as a matter of practice. “The work is too critical, too timely for us to postpone, put on the back burner. This is a priority for us and we are going to deliver on the commitment to the historically black college and university community.”

Yet Adams said some college presidents feel that returning to Washington for another White House conference after their February visit would not be productive.

“They haven’t done anything to this point,” Adams said of the administration. “To have the folks come back up there when they’re disappointed from the first trip – obviously it doesn’t appear they (the administration) have placed a lot of emphasis, and certainly not a priority, on this initiative.

“I know that (HBCU presidents) don’t feel valued or listened to,” she said.

While the Trump administration has scaled back its HBCU event, the black caucus is launching its first-ever HBCU brain trust gathering during its annual legislative conference this week in Washington.

The caucus has organized a lobbying day for HBCU presidents to meet with House and Senate Democrats, a luncheon with black college leaders and corporate executives and a session to celebrate the 150th anniversary of nine black colleges.

HBCUs are any black college or university established before 1964 with the principal mission of educating African American students. Collectively, they enroll nearly 300,000 students and receive money from the federal government through grants, contracts, appropriations and financial aid.

They received $4.7 billion in federal financial assistance in 2013, according to the latest report available. That sum accounted for 2.8 percent of federal dollars awarded to all higher education institutions.

Anita Kumar: 202-383-6017, @anitakumar01

William Douglas: 202-383-6026, @williamgdouglas