Unlikely Alliances: HBCU Officials Meet with GOP Leaders
WASHINGTON — To most outsiders, they seemed like strange bedfellows. Nonetheless, leaders from the GOP and historically Black colleges met here last month to hash out legislative funding and other concerns.
The brainchild of Rep. J.C. Watts, R-Okla., the first-ever Congressional House Majority HBCU Summit drew a who’s who list of Black college presidents, association officials and industry representatives to Capitol Hill to rub elbows with a group of Congressional conservatives not often associated with championing Black college causes.
“People left their egos, their personalities and their party associations at the door to make this work,” says Watts, who also called for future follow-up sessions. “We must not drop the ball. All of us have a stake in making sure we put some teeth to this effort.”
Collectively, the college leaders called for:
n Greater student-aid funding, noting that nearly 90 percent of HBCU students depend on some type of federal financial aid. While acknowledging that in recent years, there have been significant fiscal increases for TRIO, Pell grants, work-study and Perkins loans, the presidents — and even some GOP officials — voiced unease over the current battle over funding between TRIO and Gaining Early Access and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs.
n Increased legislative funding to beef up programs that work to boost the number of African Americans enrolling in college.
n $5 million to establish an HBCU Technical Assistance and Resource Center. The center would serve as an information source on policy for Black colleges and would provide scholars to conduct research.
n $7.2 million in appropriations for historic building preservation on HBCU campuses. In 1996, Congress authorized $29 million for the restoration of historic properties at selected Black colleges. The college leaders say that to date, only 22.3 million has been appropriated.
n A mandate to be given to the National Science Foundation to take more proactive steps to engage HBCUs in grant competitions. The leaders also called for increased funding for the foundation’s Black college undergraduate program.
n $75 million for a new effort to increase diversity in the work force, particularly in the fields of science and technology.
“Mr. [J. Dennis] Hastert and Mr. Watts, the facts are very clear. You have the power, working with other members of your party, as well as with those across the aisle, to address the needs of HBCUs and to provide us with federal resources we need to catch up, keep up and step up,” said Dr. Henry Ponder, president and CEO of the National Association for Equal Opportunity.
Individual college officials questioned the congressional leaders about ways to recruit and retain new teachers in light of such low salaries, the possibility of loan forgiveness as a strategy to recruit new teachers and for additional resources for Black college initiatives in science, engineering and math.
“This was an opportunity for us to open a dialogue where we had not been able to have a dialogue before,” says Dr. Fred Humphries, president of Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, Fla., addressing political anxiety that many observers mentioned. “This doesn’t mean we are interested in crossing over. To us, this is not a political strategy.”
Watts first announced his plans to bring the diverse group together in a speech at Oklahoma’s Langston University in March.
“It’s my goal to make sure every student is equipped with up-to-date technology and resources they need to compete in this new global economy,” Watts said at the time.
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