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Conference: Though HBCUs Urged To Tout Successes, Lack of Federal Support Remains a Challenge

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Although President Obama is an “ardent supporter of HBCUs,” the federal government continues to shortchange HBCUs when it comes to grant funding.

That was one of the key points made Monday by Dr. William Harvey, chairman of the President’s Board of Advisors on Historically Black Colleges and Universities, at a national conference for historically and predominantly Black campuses.

“President Obama understands and appreciates our value to this nation and to the world,” said Harvey, longstanding president of Hampton University, during a press briefing at the National Press Club titled “The State of America’s Black Colleges: Colleges and Universities that are Built to Last.’”

The event was part of NAFEO’s 38th National Dialogue on Blacks in Higher Education HBCUs & PBIs, a three-day event held under the theme, “Tooting Our Horn a Little Louder!”


“The facts justify his support,” Harvey said of President Obama. “That said, I’m also here to tell you that the state of Black colleges and universities could be and should be better.”

“And let me suggest one area in which we might focus our improvement efforts, and that is the federal government’s engagement to HBCUs just as it is engaged to predominantly White institutions,” Harvey added.

Harvey went on to recite figures he said he collected from the Office of Management and Budget that show that in 2010 federal agencies awarded HBCUs only 1.7 percent of what they awarded to all institutions of higher learning. HBCUs represent 3 percent of America’s colleges and universities.

The biggest funder of research and development at HBCUs, the Department of Health and Human Services, awarded only 1 percent of its college and university grant funding to HBCUs, Harvey said.

Other agencies, such as the Department of Defense, awarded less than 1 percent of all funding awarded to institutions of higher education.

“How many minorities do we have fighting, bleeding and dying in defense of this country?” Harvey, himself a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserve, asked as he lamented the fact that the Defense Department awarded HBCUs only 0.8 percent of all the funding that it granted to post-secondary education institutions.

Telling stories of HBCU’s contributions that range from producing more than their share of African-American doctors, dentists, teachers and other professionals to research initiatives aimed at combating HIV, colon cancer and treating other diseases that disproportionately or exclusively affect people of color, Harvey said he wasn’t asking the federal government to “give” HBCUs anything.

Rather, he said, his aim is to get federal agencies to realize the role that HBCUs can play in helping the nation reach its various objectives, including the Obama administration’s college completion goal of restoring the country to its former status as the most college-educated nation on earth by 2020.

A Diverse reporter asked Harvey how could it be that federal agencies are shortchanging HBCUs if President Obama is, as he said, an “ardent supporter of HBCUs.”

Harvey responded by saying that “the baby was born full grown.” He elaborated on that comment by saying that federal agencies are filled with career civil servants whose allegiance is not to who’s in the White House at any particular point in time, but whose interests are aligned with institutions of higher learning that mirror the colleges and universities they attended.

“One of the biggest problems that I see is you’ve got the federal agencies populated with people that look out for each other,” Harvey said. “So whether or not you got Democrats or Republicans in the White House, you’ve got people in federal agencies, career civil servants, that are program managers, and some of them come from the University of Chicago and Michigan and Stanford. They look to get proposals, support advisory councils and other kinds of advice from people that they know, and, as a result, a lot of those people get the federal grants.”

Harvey fretted when asked if an Executive Order could rectify the situation. And perhaps it was with good reason.

President Obama already signed Executive Order 13532, titled “Promoting Excellence, Innovation, and Sustainability at Historically Black Colleges and Universities.”

Among other things, the order calls for federal department and agency heads to “establish how the department or agency intends to increase the capacity of HBCUs to compete effectively for grants, contracts, or cooperative agreements and to encourage HBCUs to participate in Federal programs.” It also calls on them to “identify Federal programs and initiatives in which HBCUs may be either underserved or underused as national resources, and improve HBCUs’ participation therein.”

Circumstances did not permit a review of the degree to which department and agency heads have complied with this Executive Order. However, at least one Obama administration official has publicly complained within the past year that too few HBCUs compete for federal funding.

Besides Harvey, other panelists included:

n      Lynn Huntley, Policy Expert and Immediate Past President, Southern Education Foundation, who echoed Harvey’s call for more equitable funding for HBCUs.

n      Dr. Omari H. Swinton, Assistant Professor of Economics at Howard University, who recounted research he did that suggests HBCU graduates have “relatively superior long-run returns” over non-HBCU graduates.

n      Dr. Sandy Baum, Professor of Economics at Skidmore College and a consultant at The College Board, who stressed the need to call for more effective use of Pell grants, as opposed to simply calling for increases in Pell grants in an era of fiscal strain.

n      Julius Cartwright, President of the National Association of Real Estate Brokers, or NAREB, who touted a new partnership with NAREB, a Black real estate association, and HBCUs to foster more homeownership among African-Americans as a means of reducing gaps in wealth between African-Americans and others in the United States.

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