By Reginald Stuart
WASHINGTON—President Trump this week made historic and symbolic embraces of the nation’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU’s), welcoming university chiefs to the White House and issuing an Executive Order continuing and moving the White House Initiatives on HBCUs to the White House to facilitate more direct contact with White House senior staff.
The brief White House gathering was the first time a group of HBCU presidents has been officially greeted by a President in the nation’s history.
Dr. Glenda Glover, President of Tennessee State University, was among a group of more than 50 HBCUs represented during two days of formal meetings here this week, first as guests of Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill and later with senior White House executives and briefly with President Trump.
Dr. Glover participated in the smaller ceremony for White House guests for the signing by the President of an Executive Order, a special and rare opportunity for any person.
The goal of the two days of formal meetings with HBCU chiefs said organizers of the gatherings, was to help the new Republican leadership and rank and file lawmakers on Capitol Hill, get to know more about HBCUs. Most senior Trump officials and Republican lawmakers know little, if anything about HBCUs, unless they are in a Congressional District or State represented by one.
The lack of historical familiarity with HBCUs was illuminated by new Education Secretary Betsy DeVos when she briefly referred to private HBCUs as examples of school choice, failing to put her reference in the historical context of those institutions being rooted in the racial segregation of the past and sustained for decades by state and federal governments as a result of racial segregation in America.
Despite such slips, the two-day encounter was high on historic symbolism, albeit short on substance.
The President, in an executive order issued early Tuesday and in his State of the Union address to Congress that night, stopped short of going beyond symbolic gestures however, despite declaring the institutions essential partners in the nation’s higher education network.
Trump did not answer the challenges since election from HBCU presidents to restore the “aspirational goals” started by former President Jimmy Carter and formalized by the late President Ronald Reagan requiring all federal agencies of government to award five per cent of their contracts and grants each year to HBUC’s. Some presidents and higher education leaders had hope Trump would at least match, and hopefully, exceed that goal.
The President also did not directly address the wish list of most of the nation’s college and university presidents that his budget plans would provide for boosting student aid and assistance by increases in Pell Grant assistance and restoration of PPL (PARENT PLUS LOAN) assistance to historical levels.
The highly touted “listening” meeting with the Vice President and top Administration executives was more brief than many had expected, although well attended by senior White House aides. Still, most who participated, sought to put the gathering and needs of their institutions in context.
“Our goal as a group was to share our collective concerns with President Trump and his executive leadership directly responsible for educational funding and policies that impact our institutions,” said TSU President Glover.
“We hope the executive order represents a real commitment to historically black colleges and universities which makes HBCUs a significant line item in the President’s budget. What HBCUs need is funding, and this is precisely why we made the trip to Washington,” Dr. Glover said, stressing the points the university chiefs had hope to hear more about during the historic gathering.
Virginia Congressional Representative Robert “Bobby” Scott, echoed other lawmakers and higher education advocates in giving the week’s activities context.
“Every president since Jimmy Carter has issued an executive order to strengthen HBCUs, and it is encouraging that the White House is honoring this tradition,” said Congressman Scott,who has several HBCUs in his Congressional District.
“These institutions merit robust investment and their students deserve a strong federal commitment to grant aid, such as Pell Grants wrap around services to get them in and through college,” said Scott.
“Unfortunately, there is alarming talk from the White House about increasing defense spending at the expense of domestic programs, which could include cuts to programs that support HBCUs and other federal education programs,” Scott said,” voicing concerns of many fellow lawmakers.
“As the budget process evolves, I encourage the Administration to reinforce its support of this new Executive Order by offering and securing real investments in HBCU, our public education systems and the students and families who they serve,” said Scott, echoing lawmakers and higher education advocates seeking substantive positive move by President Trump in the future.
Dr. William Harvey, president of Hampton University and volunteer of the White House Initiative during the administration of President Obama, said the meetings on the White House grounds with President Trump and his senior aides should be considered an opportunity, despite downsides of the counter expressed by some.
As a veteran of White House encounters, Dr. Harvey said the university chiefs should not have expected a long give and take, as some had believed might happen.
“You’ve got a whole new set of dynamic,” said Dr. Harvey, referring to President Trump and his team. “I think the President…showed a great deal of respect and graciousness to us. I don’t have any negatives,” he said. “I don’t throw stones,” he said, when asked about the shortcomings of the week’s encounters.