Presidents for Historically Black Colleges and Universities returned to Washington for their second annual conference on Capitol Hill Tuesday, unable to cite more than a few measurable victories in the year since Congressional Republicans and the new Trump White House promised to promote and support the institutions.
There have been bright spots — for instance, the restoration of year-round Pell Grants, which provides tuition assistance for low- and middle-income students.
Recently, the White House worked with congressional lawmakers to forgive millions of dollars borrowed from the federal government to rebuild HBCU campuses after damage caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and ordered 31 government agencies that regularly interact with HBCUs to develop annual plans to “strengthen the capacity” of those schools.
And on Tuesday, President Donald Trump named Johnny C. Taylor Jr., the respected former chairman of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, as chairman of the White House Board of Advisers on HBCUs.
“This is very important, very important to me and the administration,” Trump said at a White House event introducing Taylor.
Taylor is a welcome addition to the task force for all those who chafed at the appointment of Johnathan Holifield — a consulting firm co-founder and former National Football League player with no HBCU experience — to be executive director of the White House HBCU initiative.
“(Taylor) understands the plight of our institutions and at least there is a person who is chair who can perhaps articulate some critical needs,” said Lester C. Newman, president of Jarvis Christian College in Hawkins, Texas.
One educator familiar with the situation said the lag time was understandable given that Trump had no political experience, was not expected to win the presidency and continues to have many critics.
“That stuff is real,” the person said. “People didn’t want help him and didn’t want to work with him.”
Taylor’s appointment also comes on the heels of the departure of controversial Trump aide Omarosa Manigault, who many HBCU leaders said was a disruptive force in trying to spearhead outreach to schools, according to two people familiar with the situation but not authorized to speak publicly.
“She meant well,” said Phyllis Worthy Dawkins of Bennett College in Greensboro, N.C. “She graduated from HBCUs, and she cares about HBCs, so I think her heart was in the right place. Maybe the strategy wasn’t the right strategy.”
Grumblings remain, however, that the White House, for all its fanfare, has moved at a painfully slow pace to get its HBCU intiative up and running.
“Almost nothing has happened since Trump named a director,” said Marybeth Gasman, director of the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions at the University of Pennsylvania. “We had the stories in sentiment but a quick Lexis Nexis search as well as a review of the website will tell you that aside from a couple announcements of opportunities in federal agencies, very little has been done.”
Many HBCU advocates remain shaken by some aspects of Trump’s fiscal 2019 budget blueprint, which proposes investments in training programs rather than in traditional college degrees, cuts Pell Grants and reduces work-study funding.
Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Ala., who represents a Congressional district where an HBCU — Concordia College — recently shuttered, told McClatchy in a statement that Trump’s budget, along with House Republican legislative efforts, “threaten to deprive HBCUs of the resources that make their work possible.”
“When I talk with members of the HBCU community, I hear serious concerns about proposed cuts to the programs that HBCUs and their students rely on,” Sewell continued. “The time for talk and photo ops is over. We need substantive legislative action to save our HBCUs.”
Trump vowed to outdo the nation’s first black president, Barack Obama, in supporting the nation’s historically black colleges when he signed the executive order, which placed oversight of the schools directly in the White House. But black college leaders were dismayed after the administration failed to quickly follow through, especially when Trump’s much-hyped executive order included no additional money for black colleges. Many campuses are struggling, suffering from budget cuts, low endowments, aging facilities and fiscal mismanagement.
Yet in the context of the events on Capitol Hill, HBCU representatives erred on the side of diplomacy rather than air grievances.
Harry Williams, current head of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund and former president of Delaware State University, said he has urged HBCU presidents to engage with lawmakers and the administration even while some have “push(ed) back because of some of the rhetoric coming out of the White House.”
Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., and Rep. Mark Walker, R-N.C., who organized the HBCU fly-in Tuesday as they did for last year’s summit, refused to acknowledge areas where Congress’ efforts or those of the White House might have fallen short.
At a press briefing between panel discussions, Scott and Walker took some credit for restoring the year-round Pell grants, saying HBCU presidents made that request at last year’s summit. They noted they arranged for the day-long conference to focus on connecting students to careers in industry, honoring a request that this year’s gathering have that emphasis.
The two men said they saw themselves as facilitators who could help HBCU officials meet new people and hear new ideas rather than as legislators who could promise to deliver on certain demands.
“This is not a policy-centric conference,” said Scott. “This year is about ... creat(ing) a pipeline of opportunities that are not filled with government-centric suggestions and recommendations and solutions, but one that is actually focusing on connecting HBCUs with industries.”
The lawmakers also sought to separate themselves from what the Trump administration was and was not doing.
“I appreciate the Trump administration where they want to partner with us and move forward,” said Walker, “but this is something we don’t have to wait on other people to engage until we pick up the mantle and move forward.”