The White House and U.S. Department of Education (ED) has appointed Dr. Dietra Trent as the new executive director of the White House Initiative on Advancing Educational Equity, Excellence, and Economic Opportunity through Historically Black Colleges and Universities (WHI-HBCUs).
Trent, who is an HBCU graduate and Virginia’s former secretary of education, will start the role on Monday. Scholars of HBCUs, advocacy organization leaders, and former directors of the White House Initiative welcome this long-awaited appointment, particularly of a Black woman.
“It’s exciting that we’ll have a Black woman in this position because I don’t think that has happened before,” said Dr. Felecia Commodore, an assistant professor of educational foundations and leadership at Old Dominion University, where she studies HBCUs. “I don’t know much about Dr. Trent, but I think it’s promising that she graduated from Hampton University, which means she has a direct connection with HBCUs.”
Trent, who was not available for an interview prior to starting her position, earned her bachelor’s degree in sociology and criminal justice from Hampton. She went on to receive her master’s and doctoral degrees in public administration and policy from Virginia Commonwealth University.
“I am very excited to see the appointment of an African American woman with extensive higher education experience, and who was educated at an HBCU,” said Dr. Marybeth Gasman. Gasman studies HBCUs and is the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Endowed Chair in Education at Rutgers University. “To me, this is another example of President Biden’s publicly stated commitment to empowering and creating opportunity for more Black women and recognizing their important role in society.”
Dr. Robert T. Palmer, department chair and associate professor in the department of educational leadership and policy studies at Howard University, also stressed Trent’s policy background as a strong fit for the job. Trent has served in the administrations of three former governors. In 2016, she was appointed as Virginia’s secretary of education. Prior to that appointment, Trent was deputy secretary of education. Most recently, she held leadership positions at George Mason University, including as chief of staff.
“I’m delighted on many fronts,” said Palmer. “Number one, given the fact that a female will be serving in this capacity is really empowering. But more importantly, you have someone who is very well-qualified, who got her undergraduate degree at an HBCU, who has worked in higher education, who has worked in policy and with governors before, who has rich experience.”
Lezli Baskerville, president and CEO of the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education (NAFEO) said Trent’s experience in Virginia’s department of education holds particular promise in her ability to push for greater support to HBCUs. NAFEO is a membership and advocacy association for HBCUs and Predominantly Black Institutions (PBIs).
“That service and her service as Senator Warner’s state deputy director well position her to lead the WHI-HBCUs in realizing one of NAFEO’s priority goals for the department, namely to strengthen the relationship between the WHI-HBCUs and the National Black Caucus of State Legislators,” said Baskerville in an email to Diverse.
Dr. Ivory A. Toldson, who was the director of the Initiative under former President Barack Obama, emphasized the importance of the job. He added that while he was not familiar with Trent before her appointment, she “seems to have the qualifications and connections to create opportunities for HBCUs through the Initiative.”
“The White House Initiative on HBCUs is the most important entity for HBCUs to gain access to federal resources, including Title III, student aid, and grants and contracts from across 30+ federal agencies,” said Toldson. “The current revenue HBCUs receive from the federal government is essential to their short-term survival and long-term growth.”
Still, Dr. Leonard L. Haynes III, who was the director of the WHI-HBCUs under former President George W. Bush, noted that the Biden administration took over a year to appoint a new director. That delay is not only unusual but could pose problems for Trent and HBCUs, he argued.
“I guess all we can say is congratulations,” said Haynes. “They finally did identify somebody. And she has a challenge in front of her, certainly, because it’s been well over a year since the administration has been in office. I think that’s the longest gap that we’ve had between having someone appointed and the president taking office.”
Haynes added, however, that he hopes Trent will take “full advantage” of the HBCU PARTNERS Act, which former President Donald J. Trump signed. The bill requires certain federal agencies to submit annual plans for strengthening the capacity of HBCUs to participate in federal programs.
“She’s lost a year already,” said Haynes. “So, the question is, what will be her priorities moving forward? And will she be able to develop a compelling strategy to implement her priorities? That’s what she’s got to develop.”
Yet to Lodriguez Murray, senior vice president of public policy and government affairs at the United Negro College Fund (UNCF), the delayed appointment is not necessarily a drawback for HBCUs. UNCF is a national philanthropic and advocacy organization that funds scholarships for Black students and general scholarship funds for 37 HBCUs.
“I’m glad that the White House took a beat to get the right person for this job,” said Murray. “We at UNCF have always been inclined to believe this is one of the most important appointments for the HBCU community. And the fact that the White House took the time to find the right individual at the right time is something that I’m very pleased with.”
Gasman also commented on the delayed appointment.
“I know that President Biden and his administration have had to clean up a lot of messes left from the Trump administration,” she said. “However, I do think that this appointment should have come sooner. I’m heartened that despite this delay in appointment, President Biden and Congress have committed considerable funding to HBCUs to date.”
But on Trent's next steps, Haynes said that he is “available to be supportive and encouraging of whatever she needs.”
Toldson, who is also a professor of counseling psychology at Howard University, similarly said that he is eager to help and looks forward to the months ahead.
“As a former director of the Initiative and current HBCU professor and director of education innovation and research for the NAACP, I stand willing and ready to support her and her staff."
Rebecca Kelliher can be reached at [email protected]