Presidents Bush, Clinton Reach Out to Katrina-Devastated HBCUs Through ‘Wave of Hope’ Campaign

After the 2004 tsunami devastated large swaths of Southeast Asia, former Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton stepped in to aid the recovery process. When Hurricane Katrina’s floodwaters overwhelmed the U.S. Gulf Coast, Bush and Clinton again teamed up to raise millions for hurricane victims. Now the pair have personally reached out to Gulf-area historically Black colleges and universities still reeling from Katrina’s impact.

The former presidents approached United Negro College Fund President and CEO Michael Lomax about lending assistance to the organization’s Gulf-area member colleges, and thus a ‘Wave of Hope’ multimillion-dollar fund-raising campaign was born. This effort teams the Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund with the UNCF to restore student scholarships and rebuild the campuses of seven Katrina-impacted HBCUs — Alcorn State University, Bishop State Community College, Dillard University, Jackson State University, Southern University at New Orleans, Tougaloo College and Xavier University of New Orleans.

“President Bush and President Clinton recognized that there is continued unmet need, and that more has to be done, and that’s why they helped us create this Wave of Hope campaign,” Lomax says. “The rebuilding of seven historically Black colleges struck by Hurricane Katrina has begun, but estimates range as high as $300 million to restore these campuses completely. They’ve committed both to make calls and to speak out on this issue and to work very closely with [UNCF] in raising funds in the months to come.”

Xavier President Norman Francis points out to those who question the post-Katrina relevance of these HBCUs that Xavier is the No. 1 producer of Black medical school students.

“What it says in effect is that if something happens to HBCUs, America suffers. And though HBCUs did receive — thank God, through many of the companies that supported us in the Bush-Clinton campaign — funds to keep the doors open while we were closed, in a sense, financially; the future is going to be extremely challenging,” he says.

One major challenge that Xavier and other Gulf-area HBCUs will face is a drop in freshman enrollment in the fall, because of the perception that the institutions aren’t ready to accept students. Francis challenges that perception, though, saying the HBCUs in the area have been ready since January.

“There are going to be students who should be in our institutions who may not be,” he says. “That means we are going to have to have more financial aid to get them and, at the same time, get the parents to know that we’re there to serve them.”

In addition, Francis says Xavier and other Katrina-affected HBCUs are still grappling with financial shortfalls after have having kept key faculty members on the payroll while the colleges were closed. Xavier is also hoping to receive as much as $300,000 from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to offset the losses. But Francis isn’t sure when, or if, that money will come through.

“In effect, we are faced with both the capital recovery, which the Wave of Hope will help us in, as well as we need the operational,” Francis says.

Brenda Siler, communications director at UNCF, says the relationship among Bush, Clinton and the UNCF stems largely from Lomax’s long friendship and political partnership with Clinton. Lomax, as Fulton County Commission chair in Atlanta, chaired Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign in Georgia. In addition, the Bush family has for many years had some presence and involvement with the UNCF board.

It appears that Clinton has been talking to Lomax since Clinton and Bush began spearheading the post-Katrina rebuilding efforts. It was agreed earlier this year that Lomax and UNCF should take on a larger role in leading the fund-raising to rebuild the HBCUs affected by Katrina.

This past May, the two former presidents, in New Orleans to speak at Tulane University’s graduation, took time to film a public service announcement supporting the UNCF campaign. The PSA should air sometime this fall.

Siler says that last fall, UNCF spearheaded a fund-raising drive that netted $4 million for emergency scholarships for students at UNCF-member schools who were affected by Katrina.

—      Senior writer Ronald Roach contributed to this story.

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