Wariness, optimism of Trump by HBCUs

Funding for Black institutions remains a major concern

BY KURTIS LEE
LOS ANGELES TIMES/TNS

Since taking office, President Donald Trump has pledged “unwavering support” for the critical educational missions of historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), invited leaders of those institutions to the White House and even dispatched his Education secretary to deliver her first commencement address of graduation season at one of the schools.

President Donald Trump greets Education Secretary Betsy DeVos during a school choice event on May 3 in the Roosevelt Room of the White House.
(OLIVIER DOULIERY/ABACA PRESS/TNS)

The moves, by a president who won just 8 percent of the Black vote in November, have surprised and pleased some African-American educators, who say Trump already has outpaced the steps taken by previous administrations, including that of the nation’s first Black president.

While some leaders and groups associated with Black colleges have welcomed the young administration’s overtures, others, notably students, remain wary of Trump and assail the White House as tone-deaf and insensitive.

Frosty reception
Those views were on display this month when Education Secretary Betsy DeVos delivered the commencement address at Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach.  As DeVos began to speak, students booed and turned their backs on her.

Following his inauguration, Trump’s most overt outreach to African-Americans has been his efforts to woo students and leaders of Black colleges that were founded in the years after the Civil War and today consist of 101 public and private schools nationwide.

“For (President) Obama, people expected him to come in and fix everything — especially for Black people. … But he never campaigned strongly for HBCUs,” said Walter Kimbrough, president of Dillard University in New Orleans, using the common abbreviation for the schools.

Johnny C. Taylor Jr., president of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, a nonprofit that helps provide financial assistance to students who attend Black colleges, says the signs from the White House are encouraging.

“In the first four months of this presidency, the Trump administration has been far more responsive to our community than the past administration,” Taylor said. “I, for one, judge people by what they do — not what they say.”

Funding untouched
Taylor points to, among other things, the bipartisan spending bill Congress passed and Trump signed this month, which includes an expansion of Pell grant eligibility to year-round. (In recent years, Obama signed budgets that only allowed Pell grants to be used for two semesters in a school year.)

Moreover, Taylor says, Trump’s own budget proposal left funding for Black colleges and universities untouched, even as it proposed slashing the Department of Education budget 13.5 percent.

The struggles continue
HBCUs are located primarily in Southern and Midwestern states and in 2015 enrolled nearly 300,000 students, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

In recent years, many Black colleges, which educate students of all races and ethnicities, have struggled to bolster enrollment and graduation rates.

Rick Gallot, president of Grambling State University in rural Louisiana, says it’s important for leaders of Black colleges to forge bonds with Trump’s administration, including with DeVos.

“For me, there’s no real emotional attachment to this administration. … But the question is how do we continue to build relationships with this administration?” said Gallot, a former Democratic state lawmaker. “The recent action by the Congress and the White House does reflect an increase in Pell funding — that’s a positive.”

Vocal and often angry students quickly point to missteps by the White House.

DeVos on HBCUs
In February, after DeVos and Trump met with Black college leaders, DeVos released a statement calling the institutions “pioneers when it comes to school choice.”

Critics castigated her as ignorant, noting the schools were established to combat racism and segregation.

Divisive move
A day after the meeting, Trump signed an executive order moving oversight of an initiative on HBCUs — which dates back to the Carter administration and, among other things, helps schools access federally sponsored programs — from the purview of the Department of Education to the White House.

Critics called the order symbolic and expressed more dismay when Trump, on signing the spending bill May 5, included a signing statement that seemed to suggest the federal government could not earmark funds for Black colleges.

Reps. John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., and Cedric L. Richmond, D-La., chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, called the statement “stunningly careless and divisive,” especially for a “president who pledged to reach out to African-Americans and other minorities.”

The White House later said it had no intention of withholding funds from Black colleges.

Speech canceled
In response to a student petition, leaders at Texas Southern University, a Black college in Houston, this month canceled a commencement address by U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican and Trump supporter.

“Every consideration is made to ensure that our student’s graduation day is a celebratory occasion and one they will remember positively for years to come,” the school said, adding that Cornyn was welcome to visit the school at another time.

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