When President Donald J. Trump met with over 80 Presidents and Chancellors of Historically Black Colleges (HBCUs) Feb. 27-28, the reaction was a mixture of optimism and skepticism not only from the university attendees but the students of the schools they lead.
For two days, the HBCU leaders met with Trump, along with Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of Education Betsy Devos and GOP Congressional leaders.
During the 2016 Presidential campaign, Trump promised he would “do more for HBCUs than any other president has done before.”
The university presidents heard promises about a goal of 5 to 10 percent for federal agency funding to HBCUs, a special HBCU innovation fund, large boosts in Pell Grant and Title III funding, and extra tax breaks for those in the private sector who contribute to HBCUs.
All of these proposals must first be approved by a Republican-controlled Congress which has promised to reduce domestic spending for social programs and inject more money into the defense.
Trump did announce he has moved the HBCU initiative from the Education Department to his office.
Two area university presidents meeting with the White House and Congressional leaders were Hampton University’s Dr. William Harvey and Norfolk State University’s Eddie N. Moore, Jr.
Moore, who was appointed last year to lead Virginia’s largest state-supported HBCU, said that despite some reservations about attending the meeting, it could have a positive outcome.
Moore pointed out that despite the political dynamics, most people do respond to an invitation by the White House, out of respect for the office of the U.S. Presidency.
“A lot of people misunderstood the purpose of the meeting,” said Moore. “We could make progress. If you are not in the room … your voice is not heard. I hope this is the first of many meetings.”
The meeting was organized in part by the White House and the Thurgood Marshall Fund, one of a number of organizations which lobby on behalf of the nation’s 105 HBCUs. Moore said he has been associated with the organization for over 20 years and respects its work.
Moore said many of the HBCUs have physical and financial needs which could be resolved to a degree with $125 billion in funding proposed by the Trump Administration.
He said he would prefer each school gets its fair share of that money in a lump sum to avoid the possibility of their being affected by future budget cuts.
Moore said he would use his share of the federal largesse to upgrade NSU’s academic programs, notably for research. He said the money could be used to upgrade, repurpose or renovate existing buildings.
The NSU president said he would like to expand his campus’ capacity to house students. He envisions a multiple purpose facility which would be used for student living, instruction and dining.
State colleges and universities are hard pressed due to state funding regulations to build auxiliary enterprises such as living and sports facilities, he explained.
Moore said he would also use the additional revenue to bolster faculty salaries, in the form of bonuses.
In an open letter from Morehouse College President John Wilson Jr. released March 3 on the school’s website, Wilson called the meetings “nothing more than a photo op with the African-Americans at the White House.”
In his statement, Wilson said rather than signing an executive order that would produce more funding for the 105 schools Trump merely moved the HBCU initiative from the Education Department to his office with no additional money or tax breaks.
“It is not possible to measure the impact of this gesture anytime soon, if ever,” said Wilson.
Dr. Lezli Baskerville, the president and CEO of the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education (NAFEO), who also attended the meetings, had praise for the meetings. She credited Trump advisor Omarosa Manigault for her role in setting up the meetings between Trump and the HBCU leaders.
NAFEO is a membership association for the presidents and chancellors of the nation’s HBCUs.
“I want to withhold judgment,” said David Beckley, president of Rust College in Holly Springs, Mississippi. “I want to believe that you would not have these men and women parade to Washington for a show and tell and you do nothing. I’m going give them the benefit of the doubt. We all wait with great anticipation to see what the response will be.”
At nearby Howard University in the nation’s capital, students disrupted the annual Spring Convocation because they felt that the school’s president, Wayne A. I. Frederick, was cozying up to the Trump Administration, in light of the racist tone of his 2016 presidential campaign.
Also, on a sidewalk of the 150-year-old Howard campus, a student scribbled “Welcome to the Trump Plantation. Overseer Wayne A. I. Frederick.”
Howard students said they received support via Tweet and other social media from other schools, including Spelman, North Carolina A&T and Hampton University.
But one of the most controversial episodes during the White House meetings was related to comments by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos during a special luncheon at the Library of Congress on Feb. 28. DeVos compared the creation of HBCUs to charter schools of choice, completely ignoring the fact that HBCUs were created because of racist Jim Crow laws that kept Black students from receiving education.
“HBCUs were not created because the four million newly freed Blacks were unhappy with the choices they had,” Morehouse President Wilson asserted. “They were created because they had no choices at all.”
Also during the Oval office visit of the HBCU leaders, Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway was photographed sitting on her legs on a couch, an image many found disrespectful.
By Leonard E. Colvin