With great fanfare, President Donald Trump vowed to out-do former 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.
Six months later, the school’s leaders are still waiting for results.
Black college and university leaders are raising serious questions about how Trump, who won 8 percent of the African American vote last year, is dealing with their communities’ concerns.
The president has yet to appoint an executive director for his HBCU initiative, though an announcement is expected next month.
Several HBCU presidents, chancellors, and advocates had hoped that Trump’s new-found attention to their concerns would translate to more federal funding for their campuses. But Trump’s executive order included no additional money for black colleges.
The White House has questioned whether a program that helps HBCUs get low-cost construction loans is constitutional.
And HBCU advocates were stunned that Trump called for cuts in student loan programs in his fiscal 2018 budget proposal. About 70 percent of HBCU students rely on federal Pell Grants to help pay their tuition.
Rep. Mark Walker, R-N.C., an HBCU caucus member and chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, contacted the White House about two weeks ago to inquire about the pace of Trump’s initiative, according to congressional Republican sources.
Walker came away from the conversations with Ja’Ron Smith, a White House policy adviser, and Paul Teller, a special assistant to the president for legislative affairs, satisfied that Trump’s initiative is on course.
“We just want to make sure they get the right candidate (for the executive director job),” said Jack Minor, a Walker spokesman.
The White House has several finalists for the position, said a senior administration official with knowledge of the situation who is not allowed to speak publicly as a matter of practice.
Two other education experts outside the White House who were not authorized to speak publicly said the administration has one specific candidate in mind. A director is expected to be named before HBCU presidents meet in Washington next month.
The official said the HBCU portfolio will be officially moved from the education department to the White House “once the director is named.”
"It has been a slow process in putting political people in this administration. It takes time," said Leonard Haynes, a longtime educator who helped write the executive order. "I do know they have been interviewing and submitting names for vetting."
African American leaders and analysts nonetheless remain concerned by what they see as a disturbing trend.
“It doesn’t bode well for the administration’s supposed commitment,” said Alvin Schexnider, a former chancellor of Winston-Salem State University and author of “Saving Black Colleges: Leading Change in a Complex Organization.” “One has to wonder ‘What does this really mean?’ I think it signals that HBCUs aren’t a high priority for this administration.”
"I'm not frustrated but I understand the frustration. I have have friends – Republicans and Democrats – who are frustrated," added Gerard Robinson, who led Trump’s education policy during the transition and is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.
Key members of Congress have questions, too. Rep. Alma Adams, D-N.C., co-chair of the Bipartisan HBCU Caucus sent a letter to the White House signed by seven other House Democrats asking for a progress report on Trump’s effort. He posed for a photo with more than 60 black college presidents and chancellors huddled around him as he signed the executive order.
“We are concerned by your administration’s lack of progress in appointing an executive director for the initiative,” read the letters whose signatories include Reps. David Price of North Carolina, Frederica Wilson of Florida, and Barbara Lee of California. “Moreover, we wish to know your timeline for transitioning the initiative from the Department of Education to the White House.” The White House has not responded to the letter.
HBCUs include more than 100 schools established before 1964 with the principal mission of educating African Americans, who were often barred from attending majority-white schools in the pre-civil rights era. The HBCUs serve about 300,000 students nationwide.