Republican Congressman’s Retirement a Blow to HBCUs

Republican Congressman’s Retirement a Blow to HBCUs
Rep. J.C. Watts helped give Black colleges greater visibility, education leaders sayThe retirement of Rep. J.C. Watts, R-Okla., from Congress may have serious implications for historically Black colleges, according to education leaders.
“Any time you have an African American retiring from Congress, it’s a loss,” says Dr. Clinton Bristow, president of Alcorn State University in Mississippi. But as the only African American Republican in Congress, Watts also gave HBCUs visibility in the party that controls the White House and the U.S. House of Representatives.
“It’s a significant loss since we’re still in the early stages of the Bush administration,” Bristow says. “It’s important to have representation on both sides of the aisle.”
Watts gave HBCUs greater visibility among House leaders, sponsoring a Republican conference on HBCUs that drew lawmakers as well as private sector leaders (see Black Issues, Aug. 31, 2000). The conference has led to the formation of committees to discuss greater federal and business participation to improve Black colleges.
“We needed to have that type of flag-bearer with the administration,” says Bristow, who served on some of the panels created by the Republicans’ HBCU summit.
A former college football star at the University of Oklahoma, Watts also had risen to the fourth highest-ranking Republican post in the House. At his retirement announcement, the four-term congressman said party leaders, including President Bush, had asked him to seek another term on Capitol Hill. But Watts cited family concerns as his reason for retiring.
“It has been a wonderful ride,” Watts said. “The work of America is never done, but I believe that my work in the House of Representatives, at this time in my life, is completed.”
In Watts’ home state, education leaders said the lawmaker would be missed. “He’ll be remembered for introducing HBCU leaders to leaders of the Republican Party,” says Dr. Ernest Holloway, president of Langston University.
Since the beginning of these linkages, the White House and Congress have agreed to increases in federal spending on Black colleges. “I see no reason why the dialogue can’t continue,” Holloway says.
Watts said his decision was difficult, citing not only appeals from the White House but from civil rights pioneers, including Rosa Parks, to continue in office. He even cited a letter from Parks, which stated, “If you can, please remain as a pioneer on the Republican side until others come to assist you.”
For HBCUs, Watts’ departure means that colleges likely will look to the White House Initiative on HBCUs for national leadership. Bristow says colleges likely would look more to the initiative “to make sure these initiatives continue.”
If location alone is any indication, the White House initiative may have greater influence in the Bush administration than it did previously because it is now headquartered near U.S. Education Secretary Roderick Paige’s office.
Watts will wrap up his legislative duties this fall but pledged not to disappear from the policy scene. “Retiring from Congress does not mean retreating from the public arena,” he said. 



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