Government

Advocates for HBCUs Aim to Keep Pressure on Lawmakers

April 28, 2017

Chronicle photo by Adam Harris
Michael Sorrell, president of Paul Quinn College, addressed members of the HBCU Collective on Thursday in front of the U.S. Capitol. "None of us are here today to ask for pity," he said. "We are here for partnerships."

The Trump administration indicated early in its tenure that it would place a heavy focus on historically black colleges and universities — with the president signing an executive order in February that moved the White House Initiative on HBCUs back to the White House from the Department of Education. But as the administration's 100-day mark looms, there is scant evidence of that extra attention.

On Thursday members of the HBCU Collective, a group of alumni, students, and supporters of HBCUs working in politics and advocacy, journeyed here to urge legislators to take direct action on HBCUs in the absence of increased support from the administration.

Dozens gathered at the U.S. Capitol to meet with more than 30 lawmakers and their staffs. The collective wants Congress to permanently restore the year-round Pell Grant program and to indefinitely protect the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program. The group is also recommending that Congress authorize federal agencies to increase to 5 percent the share of STEM grants awarded to HBCUs, among other requests.

"It is past time for HBCUs to only get crumbs," said David Wilson, president of Morgan State University, in Baltimore. "It is time for us to get the full loaves of bread."

The requests of the HBCU Collective echo many of the actions sought by HBCU leaders during a visit with Trump-administration officials and congressional leaders in February.

The February visit, for which leaders were sharply criticized, was viewed as a first step toward working with President Trump. But on many HBCU campuses, students saw it as little more than a photo opportunity. The summit was rife with missteps. Most notably, Betsy DeVos, the education secretary, made headlines when she called HBCUs "real pioneers when it comes to school choice," in an attempt to mesh her commitment to choice with black colleges. She later attempted to clarify her remarks. John Silvanus Wilson Jr., the former president of Morehouse College, called the meetings "a troubling beginning to what must be a productive relationship."

But other black college leaders maintained hope following the visit — not primarily because of the meetings with administration officials, but due to the relationships forged with members of Congress. And as the president’s budget blueprint threatens to cut back on funding in a number of areas affecting black colleges and higher education in general, several in the HBCU community are turning to those legislators for support.

Thursday’s meetings with Congress sought to further those relationships. "None of us are here today to ask for pity," said Michael J. Sorrell, president of Paul Quinn College, in Dallas. "We are here for partnerships."

"We’re here today to let our officials know that we are going to stand for our HBCUs," said Robert T. Stephens, a co-leader of the HBCU Collective. The dozens of people who attended the Day of Action, he said, were there because "they realize, when something is wrong, you do something about it."

"We don’t get all we want, but we have to fight for what we have, and I want to join that good fight," said William Gibson, a freshman at Winston-Salem State University, in North Carolina. "We have to be the people to carry that on."

Mr. Gibson said that he was proud to represent HBCU students in Washington, but found it disheartening that some legislators did not take the time to meet with the collective. The students instead met with chiefs of staff and aides in some cases. While he understands that lawmakers have busy schedules, he said, it is not an easy time for those students who traveled to Washington as finals loom. "We took this time to come down here," Mr. Gibson said. "The least they could do is open their doors and hear our stories," which he said would make it easier to understand where the students were coming from.

"What you have just heard are not alternative facts," said Rep. Alma S. Adams, Democrat of North Carolina, speaking after Mr. Sorrell and Mr. Wilson. "It was the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, and I approve those messages."

HBCUs "have always done more for less," she said. "But we need increased resources to continue to provide the kind of exceptional learning environments that we have been providing."

Adam Harris is a breaking-news reporter. Follow him on Twitter @AdamHSays or email him at adam.harris@chronicle.com.