2017 is a strange time for America’s HBCUs. In the rearview mirror is President Barack Obama, whom African-American college students loved and voted for in historic numbers. At the same time, Obama was tone-deaf to the concerns of many HBCUs, and his policies gutted schools across the nation.
In front of them is President Donald Trump and a Republican Party that has created one of the most hostile administrations in American history, while at the same time inviting over 60 HBCU heads to Washington, D.C., for listening sessions and panel discussions and to attend the signing of a new HBCU executive order. The result was 48 hours of bad public relations for some HBCUs, a mixture of praise and skepticism about Trump’s executive orders, and a future that looks as muddled as ever.
Many presidents who came to Washington were attacked by their own students and alumni and political analysts for answering Trump’s call. Howard University students went so far as to put signs around campus expressing displeasure with President Wayne A.I. Frederick.
While this anger is understandable, you have to consider the position of these presidents. HBCUs are heavily dependent on federal funds for support and to pay tuition for many students. The opportunity to meet with POTUS, even one as problematic as this one, is part of the job that any college president has.
During a Q&A session with Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Rep. Mark Walker (R-N.C.), William Bynum, president of Mississippi Valley State, expressed the conflict that many of the attendees of the White House and subsequent Capitol Hill meetings are facing:
“We, as HBCU presidents, are being besieged with communications from students, faculty, staff and alumni that say, ‘We are being used.’ How do we answer this question?”
The Republicans had a wonderful opportunity to address that tension and ease these concerns, but failed to fully take advantage of the opportunity. The biggest problem facing Republicans who want to work with HBCUs is the same problem that Republicans as a whole face when attempting to court the African-American community: Republicans abjectly refuse to acknowledge the conflict between individual intention and institutional hostility.
There are plenty of Republicans, especially black ones, who are dedicated to helping HBCUs, but they fail to confront the reality that the Republican Party as a whole promotes policies that are directly hostile to African-American interests. When the secretary of education thinks that HBCUs are the first wave of school choice, and Kellyanne Conway treats a group of African-American college presidents like a visiting NBA championship team, black skepticism is pretty justified.
Sen. Scott told President Bynum that as the only black Republican in the Senate, he knows what it’s like to have the African-American community question him about working with Trump. He praised the presidents in the room for coming to Washington and encouraged them all to stay committed to their work and ignore the criticism.
Later on, Scott elaborated on his thoughts, noting how unfair it was that African Americans are demanding that HBCU presidents confront the Trump administration in ways that didn’t occur under Obama.
“Why hold us to a different standard [than Obama was held to]?” he said, citing the former president’s many failures with HBCUs.
I followed up by pointing out to the senator that an executive order by Trump doesn’t have any funding attached to it. This administration’s budgetary focus on the military and immigration doesn’t carve out much space for making Pell Grants year-round or fully funding Title III grants that are supposed to specifically help HBCUs.
“That’s a foolish question,” Scott said. “Why should I have to provide a number? [Obama] didn’t. We don’t have numbers yet. But this is just step 1. The budget will come and we’ll see. I’m not working for Republicans, I’m not working for black people; I’m here to work for the Lord and try to give everyone access to education, and people should understand that.”
Rep. Walker and Speaker Ryan both offered comments and anecdotes about HBCUs that ranged from sincerely naive and clueless to somewhat insulting. In an exchange about the ways that HBCU graduates make an impact across the nation, Ryan immediately jumped to Donald Driver, a Super Bowl-winning former wide receiver from the Green Bay Packers.
“Donald Driver went to Alcorn State. Is Alcorn here? That’s an HBCU, right?” said Ryan, attempting to make a little joke.
No one in the room laughed.
Walker, a white Republican from North Carolina, talked about how his wife earned a nursing degree at North Carolina A&T, which inspired him to be a champion of HBCUs despite pushback he gets from some constituents.
“I hear things from constituents,” he said during the end-of-day panel. “Somebody told me, ‘We didn’t send you to Congress to go and get money for HBCUs,’ and I pushed back on that.”
What’s worth noting is that while Walker can position himself as a noble white person standing as a bulwark against the bigotry, he leaves out the rest of the story. The fact that he has constituents who are comfortable enough and bold enough to say, “Stop doing your job for a university in your district and employer of thousands of people because they are black,” is an example of exactly the kind of bigotry that makes HBCUs necessary. This is also exactly the kind of bigotry that Trump and U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions will do nothing to stop.
The final executive order that Trump signed Tuesday will not substantively change the fate of HBCUs, and the Republican Party is not unified enough to provide any sort of clear path forward for colleges to follow, either. Nevertheless, you can’t fault HBCU presidents for doing their jobs and trying to find whatever avenues they can to improve their institutions. It’s not their fault that the Trump administration is riddled with policymakers who are hostile to the existence of African-American institutions. There could be a dozen HBCU meetings at the White House every year, but no amount of kind words from a few well-meaning members of Congress will change that fact.