Back From the White House, Some HBCU Leaders Find Upset Students

March 02, 2017

On Tuesday morning, squarely in the middle of Howard University’s campus yard, a message spray-painted on the sidewalk in blue read, "Welcome to the Trump plantation. Overseer: Wayne A.I. Frederick." On academic buildings, in front of the student center, outside the freshman dorms, other comments had appeared: "Wayne Frederick doesn’t care about black people," and "Make Howard black again."

Mr. Frederick, president of Howard, and several other leaders of Historically Black Colleges and Universities had met with Trump administration officials and, briefly, with President Trump himself. Students at Howard and several other HBCUs were critical of the meetings, perceiving them as a sign of support and, in the case of the Oval Office event, a photo opportunity for the media-savvy Mr. Trump.

Allyson Carpenter, a senior and president of the Howard University Student Union, said in an interview that she was disappointed. On the 150th anniversary of Howard’s founding, she said, Trump’s administration hasn’t demonstrated an understanding of the value of HBCUs. Ms. Carpenter referenced a statement by the education secretary, Betsy DeVos, asserting that HBCUs are "real pioneers when it comes to school choice."

"How, after meeting with so many HBCU leaders, after meeting with Dr. Frederick weeks ago, how is it that she doesn’t even understand the purpose of an HBCU, the history of an HBCU?" Ms. Carpenter said. "What were you guys talking about?"

Chronicle photo by Julia Schmalz
Wayne Frederick, president of Howard U.

She expressed concern that the meetings with HBCU leaders were being used as a way to legitimize President Trump’s agenda for black outreach while not actually responding to the educational needs of black students or the economic-development needs of impoverished black neighborhoods.

Shaan Khan, a senior at Howard, said in an interview that opinions on campus were split. During Black History Month, he said, there tends to be a disingenuous tokenization of black issues. Still, he said, the spray-painted messages were blowing the situation out of proportion. "Students are really upset, think that he sold out, or are wondering if he really has the best interests of the school in mind," Mr. Khan said. "I think he can either be an activist or he can be a president, and I think he’s just being a president."

Mr. Khan said that it makes sense that Mr. Frederick would take a meeting with the administration whose funds keep the university running but that the Trump officials should be more direct in supporting HBCUs financially. "Blanket statements about cooperation and togetherness, that doesn’t really get the job done," Mr. Khan said, "It’s all about funding. That’s what most HBCUs lack."

Students at other HBCUs have registered similar displeasure. Marquise McGriff, a student at Lincoln University of Missouri, expressed his concerns in a piece for HBCU Digest. "Because of the sporadic nature of it all, many presidents were unable to conduct surveys and gather input from their schools and the communities they serve, furthering our uneasy feeling about such a meeting," Mr. McGriff wrote.

Mr. Frederick, among other HBCU presidents, did not respond to The Chronicle’s interview requests. But leaders of black colleges have defended their visits to the White House as an opportunity to advocate for themselves.

A Place at the Table

William R. Harvey, president of Hampton University, told a Chicago radio station that he’s been to the Oval Office during every U.S. presidency since he started at Hampton. "I believe that you need to be around the table trying to influence what your own interests are," he said.

The president of Dillard University, Walter M. Kimbrough, said in an interview on NPR’s "All Things Considered" that he wanted to advocate for investment in Pell Grants, since over 70 percent of HBCU students are supported by those funds. "I really was interested more in a conversation with the [Education Department] secretary because she’s new," he said. "She doesn’t really know higher education. She doesn’t know HBCUs. And so this is an opportunity to educate her."

Mr. Kimbrough has been openly emailing Dillard’s students with updates about the meetings. Janae Rixner, a freshman at the university, said while some students were upset that he was "selling out," she didn’t think that was the case.

"He’s been open about not supporting Trump," Ms. Rixner said in an interview. "He wanted to hear what [Mr. Trump] had to say and also give his input. Our president is very vocal about protecting people of color and women. Trump is very offensive to both these groups."

After Ms. Devos visited Howard in February, Mr. Frederick came under fire. Students demanded, among other things, that Mr. Trump be banned from university buildings. Mr. Fredrick responded evenly. "We have a longstanding, successful relationship with the Department of Education, and I look forward to advancing this relationship under the secretary’s leadership," he said in a statement.

Ms. Carpenter said the spray-paint vandalism at Howard comes from a long-simmering frustration among students that the university’s administration is not hearing their needs. "Students conduct themselves with civility and respect for our campus," she said. "They only take measures like this when they feel like they’re not being heard, when they feel like they’re being ignored. They go to drastic measures, and I think this is just a time for the administration to do a better job, to actually listen."