When President Donald J. Trump convened leaders of HBCUs in the Oval Office in February to sign an executive order on HBCUs, he proclaimed these institutions as “very important” and an “absolute priority.”
However, now that the White House Initiative on historically Black Colleges and Universities has remained leaderless for longer than it has under any previous administration, a chorus of HBCU advocates and some lawmakers are increasingly of the mind that the Trump administration has failed to make good on its promise to HBCUs.
“President Trump’s HBCU fly-in meeting was a photo op, his budget cuts programs that are vital to the success of HBCU students, and he questioned the constitutionality of some funding for HBCUs. As a result of those actions and others, we’ve concluded that the President and the Administration don’t have a real interest in supporting and strengthening these schools,” said U.S. Rep. Cedric L. Richmond, D-Va., chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus. “Appointing an executive director to lead the White House Initiative on HBCUs is critical to ensuring that the cross-agency needs of HBCUs do not go unaddressed and that the CBC and other HBCU advocates have a direct line of communication to the White House.”
Founded in 1980, during President Jimmy Carter’s administration, the White House Initiative on HBCUs was designed to “overcome the effects of discriminatory treatment and to strengthen and expand the capacity of historically Black college and universities to provide quality education,” according to Executive Order 12232 which established the Initiative.
Meldon Hollis, the first person to hold the executive director position, said the office was established to provide a focal point for federal support for HBCUs.
“There are some 37 departments and agencies that can potentially provide support to HBCUs, and unless there’s some sort of coordinated effort and some sort of direction then it’s not going to be very effective, and it’s not going to be very efficient, and HBCUs will lose out on a wide number of opportunities,” he said.
When HBCU leaders assembled in the White House Oval Office and watched as President Trump signed the HBCU executive order— an order that moved the White House Initiative on HBCUs directly under the management of the White House—some were hopeful that this action would give these institutions the support they needed in order to prosper.
“If we look at the history of Presidential progress on actions relating to strengthening and sustaining HBCUs, a measure of whether we should be given pause about the likelihood of progress, or retrenchment relative to HBCUs and their service communities, is when the President signs the Executive Order on HBCUs,” said Lezli Baskerville, president of The National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education (NAFEO). “The Executive Order provides guidance in some cases, and a directive in other cases, to the heads of the federal agencies about how to ensure that HBCUs, the nation’s equal educational opportunity institutions, get a fair share of federal resources relative to their missions and their centrality to the competitiveness of America.”
A White House staffer told Diverse this that while there are several finalists for the position, no final decision has been made.
Elizabeth Hill, press secretary at the U.S. Department of Education, said Thursday that the pending move of the White House Initiative on HBCUs from the education department to the White House will take place once an executive director is appointed.
Omarosa Manigault-Stallworth, a White House spokeswoman and a point person within the Trump administration on HBCUs, did not return an e-mailed request for comment.
The delay in filling the position has caused widespread consternation among members of Congress, particularly at a time when HBCU leaders are expected to gather in Arlington, Virginia, next month for the annual HBCU week conference.
“This administration came in making some substantial overtures and promises to the HBCU community that have yet to be fulfilled,” said U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., ranking member of the House committee on education and the workforce, said in a statement to Diverse.
Scott said the Trump administration’s proposed cuts to Pell grant funds and student loans — as well as the elimination of the Federal Supplemental Education Opportunity Grants and Public Service Loan Forgiveness — would have a “disproportionately devastating effect on HBCUs.”
“I think the administration should not delay in naming a director but should also recognize that the policies they are championing would be more damaging to the HBCU community than leaving the Initiative leadership position vacant,” Scott said
Dr. Leonard Haynes, a former executive director of the initiative, said that the lack of appointment can stem from a number of things, such as money.
“Salary may be a concern for some people who might be interested,” he said. “They would have to take perhaps a significant salary reduction to take the job.”
Haynes, who served from 2007 to 2009, said that he believes the post will eventually be filled, adding that the selection process takes time.
“It’s my understanding now that someone is under serious consideration and is going through the process of vetting right now,” said Haynes. “We don’t have an executive director in place yet, but they still have to outline the basics of what a program should look like in September, because the conference is going to take place.”
The HBCU Week conference is organized through leaders of the White House Initiative on HBCUs in combination with contributions from the President’s Board of Advisors on HBCUs. The conference is a gathering place for presidents and administrators of historically Black institutions to unite with federal agencies, and other stakeholders, with the goal of promoting and strengthening HBCUs.
“Some of the major parts of the conference have not been completed yet, and that’s based on trying to make sure they get the executive director announced so they can populate certain things,” said Haynes. “I’ve been advised that most of the basic framework has been outlined, agencies have been, in fact, contacted. I understand there’s no more exhibit space available to anybody, it’s all occupied now. So, they fully expect to have well over a thousand people in attendance.”
Baskerville said that NAFEO will host a discussion focused on the history, legality and outcomes of the HBCU Capital Financing Program.
Dr. Michael Sorrell, president of Paul Quinn College said that whoever assumes the post will likely have an ambitious agenda.
“Anyone who can be successful in this role has to ask themselves who are they succeeding for? Are they succeeding for the institutions? Are they succeeding for the administration? Is there the ability to get both parties on the same page? Because that’s going to be incredibly important,” said Sorrell. “Can you forge a relationship with this administration that allows them to find value in minority communities at large? Because if you don’t value minority communities at large, how does this all work? And then, does that person have the ability and the standing to buy themselves time with the HBCU and the African American community stakeholders to be able to expect some type of positive change. Now, I don’t know who that person would be. But, I think that if they wanted to be deemed a success, that’s how they would be deemed a success.”
Dr. Marybeth Gasman, director of the Center for Minority Serving Institutions and the Judy & Howard Berkowitz professor of Education at the University of Pennsylvania is skeptical.
“Under this administration, which is reckless and dangerous, I think the best thing for HBCUs is to have as little contact with the White House as possible,” said Gasman. “I think most prospects fear being used or having their hands held by this administration. Trump is a micromanager,” she said.
Whoever gets the job has to be able to “operate in the gray areas, because some people are not going to agree with what you’re proposing. You have to be willing to listen to differences, mediate them whenever you can, and be available and resourceful, and always be responsible,” said Haynes.
“If you’re going to deal with the leadership of institutions of higher education, you must be credible in the higher education community. If you’re going to discuss institutions of higher education, you must have real credentials. Real credentials suggest that you understand higher education enterprise,” he said. “The other thing that is ideal that you must have, or should have, is an understanding of the granting and the contracting process within the federal government. If you don’t have credibility within the federal government, you’re not going to be able to get anything done.”
U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D.-Texas, said the Trump administration’s “slow movement and seeming disinterest in supporting the HBCU initiative is disappointing.”
Jackson Lee added, “The fact that this Administration has yet to appoint an executive director for the White House Initiative on HBCUs means that HBCUs must be more creative than ever. Through its inaction, the Administration is sending a resounding message of ambivalence.”
Jackson Lee said lawmakers “must insist that that the HBCU initiative be fully staffed and that the critical position of executive director be filled immediately.”
“More importantly, the person who assumes this role must receive the full support of the Administration and ensure that the students will continue to be able to benefit from the initiative,” Jackson Lee said. “Moving forward, we must remain vigilant to ensure the process through which HBCU’s procure needed resources remains intact.”
Trump’s proposed budget purports to “protect” support for historically Black colleges and universities and minority-serving Institutions by maintaining $492 million in funding for programs that serve high percentages of minority students.