Government

Executive Order Falls Short of Some HBCU Leaders' Hopes

February 28, 2017

Yuri Gripas, Reuters
President Trump on Tuesday signed an executive order that moved the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities into the White House, from the Department of Education.

(Updated, 10:17 p.m., with additional background and details.)

Following weeks of anticipation, President Trump signed an executive order on historically black colleges and universities in the Oval Office on Tuesday, a day after meeting with dozens of HBCU leaders at the White House.

The mostly symbolic order, which was spearheaded by Omarosa Manigault, a senior adviser to President Trump, moves the White House Initiative on HBCUs into the White House from the Department of Education.

Aside from the structural change and the establishment of a senior official to oversee the operation of the initiative, the executive order was not as strong as some HBCU leaders had hoped it would be. University leaders who came to Washington to meet with administration officials had called for a strong executive order with an "aspirational" funding goal that "would nearly double federal support to HBCUs," according to a memo from the United Negro College Fund.

The leaders also called for a $25-billion investment in HBCUs over the coming years, which, according to David Wilson, would not even begin to scratch the surface of what’s needed.

In an interview, Mr. Wilson, who is president of Morgan State University, in Baltimore, told The Chronicle that the figure “is not even close” to what would be required for the United States to “reclaim its No. 1 spot in the world for having the largest proportion of citizens with college degrees.”

The order, however, made no proposals for increasing federal support for HBCUs, which several leaders had believed was a top priority.

"This has to be a funding issue when we're talking about these historic levels of income and wealth inequality," Walter M. Kimbrough, president of Dillard University, said in an interview Tuesday morning, adding that HBCUs "serve a population that is the highest percentage of Pell Grant recipients of any higher-education sector."

Still, HBCU leaders said they were hopeful that their participation in this week’s event would lead to additional federal support for their colleges. And they stressed that the new executive order could be the first step toward building a stronger relationship between the Trump administration and their campuses.

"It's a very important moment and a moment that means a great deal to me," President Trump said in prepared remarks. "With this executive order we will make HBCUs a priority in the White House, an absolute priority," he said.

Off to a Rocky Start

The black college leaders met briefly with President Trump and other administration officials in the Oval Office on Monday — a meeting that drew criticism across social media and on campuses. But some of the presidents said they felt they had a duty to attend, and that the stakes were higher than just a photo opportunity.

“We saw this as an opportunity to begin building relations with the administration in a way that would be beneficial to our students, to our institutions, and to the communities in which we serve,” said Henry N. Tisdale, president of Claflin University, in South Carolina.

The college leaders hoped to tell the story of HBCUs, which is “a great American story,” Mr. Tisdale said.

The controversy deepened on Monday evening, however, when many claimed that Betsy DeVos, the education secretary, had sought to revise that story. In a statement released late Monday, Ms. DeVos — long a fervent supporter of school choice — had said HBCUs were “real pioneers when it comes to school choice.”

On Twitter, many people were quick to correct Ms. DeVos that many historically black colleges were born of necessity, not choice, at a time when black students were barred from attending white schools.

Mr. Tisdale and others took note of the gaffe. “I don’t think there’s any comparison” between school-choice and the origin of HBCUs, he said. “Historically black colleges were established to give access to the newly freed slaves in particular who had no access to higher education.”

Ms. DeVos began to walk back her comments on Tuesday in her keynote address at a luncheon for HBCU leaders and members of Congress.

What Could Have Been

For some of the college leaders, former President Barack Obama’s shadow, and thoughts of what could have been, loomed large over the White House events this week. Previous reports had suggested that by moving the longstanding initiative on HBCUs from the Education Department to the White House, Mr. Trump was aiming to get a leg up on his predecessor.

“I think that it was a reminder, for many in the HBCU community, of a lot of possibilities that went unfulfilled in the past eight years,” Mr. Kimbrough said. Black college leaders had been optimistic about the Obama administration, he said. “But for this community, there was so much that could have been done that wasn't.”

“So in some regards,” he continued, “it was painful for me to be there with him not being the one to welcome historically black colleges into the Oval Office.”

But regardless of who is in the White House, black college leaders hope to seize upon this opportunity. “I don’t think there was any looking back,” said Mr. Tisdale, “but looking forward, in terms of what can we do that would be most advantageous for the institutions we serve.”

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