With National HBCU Week now behind him, Dr. Ivory Toldson, who was officially named executive director of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges Universities last week, said his “first priority will be to continue existing, and devise new, strategies to sustain and expand federal support to HBCUs.”
With one year remaining in the Obama presidency — which has been marked by an overall decrease in the share of federal funding to HBCUs and several federal policy changes from which the community is still trying to recover — and budgets already pretty much set for 2016, Toldson will have quite a task ahead of him.
Many have questioned the administration’s commitment to supporting the issues, concerns a White House official said the administration “takes issue with,” saying President Obama and “the First Lady have been strong and consistent supporters of HBCUs. They have both made frequent visits to these institutions — the First Lady most recently visited Tuskegee this past May for 2015 commencement. And the President has made historic investments in America’s HBCUs.”
“Coming in, there was expansion of Title III and then there was expansion of the Pell, which different people say different things about whether that was an investment in HBCUs, but the fact of the matter is 70 percent of HBCU students are Pell-eligible,” Toldson said. “These are things that I think carried the greatest benefit or opportunities or potential for HBCUs” from the administration level.
But he added, “I’m focused less on trying to get something from the White House, because I just really don’t see money per se coming from the White House. You have hundreds of millions of dollars in these various agencies that [could be directed to] HBCUs.”
Dr. Meldon Hollis, who served as the first executive director of the White House Initiative on HBCUs when the office was created by President Jimmy Carter, said the office has become increasingly less of a priority to the executive branch over the years and has lost its effectiveness.
“We had the support of the White House, we had the ear of the president” when Hollis headed the office, he said. “When I came back in 2010, the office was located on K Street and the director reported to the Secretary [of Education].” Since then, he said, the reporting order has gotten even farther away from the White House: the executive director reports to the undersecretary of education, who reports to the deputy secretary, who reports to Secretary (Arne) Duncan.
“My sense was that important policy information came to the office by way of the newspaper” by the time he returned in 2010, instead of the executive director being sought out and included in policy decisions on the front end, Hollis said.
The White House official defended the president’s advocacy, saying that much of the detriment done to HBCUs was done at the hands of governors, not federal policies.
“It is true that a number of HBCUs have faced challenges in sustaining funding from their state legislatures, which is disappointing. We cannot exercise control over state-level appropriations,” she said. “But the Administration has continuously urged states to increase investments in all of their higher education institutions, including HBCUs. The President directly challenged Governors to that end when he met with them at the White House in 2012.”
Toldson acknowledged that “the state issue only affects [public] universities” and said “some of the universities that need the most help right now are smaller private HBCUs” which he said are “being kept afloat right now because of the federal support.”
“I think it’s a fair statement to make that if they didn’t have Title III, they wouldn’t exist,” he continued, saying that the legislation was never intended to sustain institutional budgets.
“Title III is intended to make the university stronger and enhance their programs. It is not intended to be a line item that allows the university to do things that they’re just supposed to do as an institution,” said Toldson. “It’s supposed to provide extra money to do extra things for the [benefit of] their students. It’s not intended to pay somebody’s salary.”
He acknowledged that the problem with the application of Title III funding is the fact that the language of the legislation “is loose enough that you can use it for just about anything.”
But Hollis said the changing roles and attitudes of recent executive directors are as much to blame for the failure of advocacy on behalf of HBCUs as any other factor.
“It has been my experience that recent leaders see that their role is to give leadership on how to run HBCUs, not advocacy to federal agencies on behalf of HBCUs,” he said.
A department official said it is important that the office continue to provide information that can be useful for running an institution, as much as it is important to continue to advocate heavily for these policies.
“The White House Initiative on HBCUs will continue devise national strategies to sustain and expand federal support to HBCUs,” she said. “Equally important is our role with equipping HBCU leadership with the information needed to access the opportunities and compete for grants and additional federal funding.”
Hollis said the demotion of the position from a senior executive service-level appointment to a general schedule (GS-15) level employee greatly diminishes the influence of the executive director in the federal government and thus diminishes the executive director’s ability to advocate fully for the schools it represents.
The ED official countered that the Initiative on HBCUs “has certainly not been singled out in any personnel matters” and added, “As one of the smallest federal agencies, ED does not have as many NC-SES and SES level employees as other agencies. All of the White House Initiative Executive Directors are at the GS-15 level.”
But Hollis insisted that the change, which took place with the appointment of Dr. John Wilson in 2009, stripped the office of its advocacy teeth.
“It is not a high enough level to advocate or talk to the highest level officials” of government, he said. “The office does not have the authority to fund programs. Its only real power is in its power as an advocate.”
Toldson disagreed, saying “that hasn’t been my experience” and confirmed he is committed as executive director to advocacy on behalf of the institutions, particularly around issues of funding. “I think there is a broader issue of all of us needing to work more effectively together,” he said, adding “it’s a two-way street.”
Hollis also referenced the perennially delayed reports on funding from the office, reports mandated by the executive order that established it.
“There’s never in the last six or seven years been a report that’s out [within] two or three years after the end of the fiscal year,” Hollis said.
“If the data’s not showing what people want them to show, they get held up for a couple of years,” particularly around election cycles, he said.
But since Toldson and his former office counterpart Dr. George E. Cooper, whose recent death left the top position in the office vacant, arrived in the office, they have worked to stabilize the office and generally improve the communication around the federal government.
“When Dr. Cooper assumed leadership, he and his team not only completed the backlog of reports [on funding to HBCUs required of the office], but brought the office up to date,” said the ED official. “Prior to 2013, the office was behind and no reports had been published since 2009.”
“There’s a lot of work to be done within the federal government to get people to understand the value of investing in HBCUs,” Toldson said. “But we also need to work with HBCUs to make sure they get the information … to access some of the resources from the federal government.”
“I think the question that we really have to answer is how do we change our investment structure, or what is the right type of investment, what is the right thing for the federal government to do for some of these smaller private institutions that don’t have the same revenue streams today that they had awhile back. … As the cost to operate goes up and the enrollment base goes down, how do we solve those issues,” he asked, adding “I don’t have the answer, because the problems are complex.”
Toldson said that where he sees “the most growth opportunity” for increased inter-agency collaboration on behalf of HBCUs is in increasing “the funding that comes from grants and competitive awards.”
“I think we need to engage [agency liaisons to HBCUs] more on the ‘how do we do more’ [on behalf of the schools] and not just the ‘what are we doing,’” he said.
“It’s not just about them creating these opportunities, but about HBCUs positioning themselves to capitalize on them,” Toldson added.
How can the office assist HBCUs in capitalizing on these opportunities?
Toldson acknowledged a need for advocacy beyond increased engagement with agency liaisons.
“We want to continue to work with people who are members of the Congressional Black Caucus and who are members of Congress generally on the things that they want to continue to do to help HBCUs,” he said. “We need to make sure we’re doing everything possible to continue to support legislation” that will be beneficial to HBCUs.
Toldson said the office is in a good position to do “more boots on the ground work,” including continuing to build on the projects that he has conceptualized during his tenure, including the HBCU All-Stars program, the Compendium of U.S. Government Sponsored Research and Programs at HBCUs, and the HBCU Data Dashboard. He also plans to work to strengthen the pipeline of students from secondary education to HBCUs, through working directly with Office of Civil Rights to advise HBCUs on opportunities to strengthen opportunities within their districts.
“I’m going to put the onus on myself” to maximize the remaining year of the appointment for the benefit of the HBCU community, Toldson said. “It’s going to be up to me to make sure that I am speaking to all of the people I need to speak to. Someone in this position can’t operate in a vaccum.”