HBCU Chancellors waiting for Republicans to prove their commitmentBy Cash Michaels, Peacemaker Contributor / March 10, 2017
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When over 80 presidents and chancellors from Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) left Washington, D.C. last week after first meeting with Pres. Trump at the White House, and then taking part in a Republican-sponsored fly-in conference at The Library of Congress, convened by conservative Rep. Mark Walker (R-NC-6), some, like chancellors Harold Martin of N.C. A&T State University in Greensboro, and Elwood Robinson of Winston-Salem State University, were hopeful that the visits would ultimately be manifested in a stronger relationship yielding greater federal public policy and funding support.
“With the national spotlight shifting to other topics, it will be important for this dialogue to continue with both the executive and legislative branches,” Chancellor Martin, in an open letter to the N.C. A&T campus, wrote afterwards.
“Clearly, there is much still to learn about our institutions [by] key government officials, and we accept our role in providing this education,” Martin continued. “I look forward to continuing the conversation around needs of particular importance to our university, other campuses, and the nearly 300,000 students (from over 100 HBCUs across the country) we collectively serve. “
WSSU’s Chancellor Robinson echoed his colleague’s response.“As this university’s leader, it is my responsibility to ensure that our elected officials understand how crucial our mission is and to ensure ongoing federal support for our students, faculty, staff, research, and programming,” Robinson said in an open letter to the WSSU campus on Facebook.
“We are keenly interested in policy and discussions around issues that impact our campus, including Title III funding, Pell grants, federal research grants, and HBCU-specific federal funding. The meetings this week in D.C. between more than 80 of my fellow HBCU leaders and high-ranking Washington lawmakers offered an opportunity to engage in constructive conversation about the value—and the incredible outcomes—of HBCUs. It is my hope that these conversations will lead to additional support for our mission.”
Observers note, however, that neither chancellor, in their post-D.C. assessments, portrayed the Washington meetings as “productive.” Indeed, at least one North Carolina HBCU leader who also attended last week, expressed considerable skepticism off the record about the Republican effort, especially after Pres. Trump issued an executive order declaring the future of HBCUs “an absolute priority” of his administration, but did not offer any further budgetary support for them beyond the $4.7 billion HBCUs received during President Obama’s tenure.
On the record, Morehouse College Pres. John S. Wilson, Jr. also issued an open letter to his campus community in Atlanta, a skeptical one, concluding it with, “In general, the meetings were a troubling beginning to what must be a productive relationship. Trust that the HBCU community will continue to press for the kind of funding that educational excellence and national competitiveness require.”
President Wilson wanted to see HBCUs come away from the Washington, D.C. visits with at least a $500 million federal commitment…to start.In a Feb. 27 White House press release titled, “President Trump Seeks to Outdo Obama in Backing Black Colleges,” White House Press Sec. Sean Spicer is quoted as saying, “The president has a strong commitment to them and understands over the last eight years they’ve been woefully neglected. And I think he wants to really show a commitment. … And so you’ll see, I think, not just a push this month, but in his budget and going forward.”
Published reports indicate that HBCUs are pushing for $25 billion in infrastructure, readiness and financial aid from Trump and the GOP-led Congress when the next federal budget is rolled out. Johnny Taylor, CEO of the nonprofit Thurgood Marshall College Fund in Washington, D.C., pushed for specific increases in federal grants to HBCUs, as well as contracts.
Several members of the Democrat-led Congressional Black Caucus are actively challenging Republicans to “put-up-or-shut-up” with more HBCU budget funding as well.
“If Pres. Trump is serious about HBCUs, he must also be serious about removing the structural barriers African Americans still face, and he should put his money where his pen is by urging his colleagues in Congress to increase federal funding to HBCUs,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD-7) in a statement.
Rep. Alma Adams (D-NC-12) challenged Republicans during her remarks at the fly-in conference luncheon asking, “…how do we work together to ensure that HBCUs not only survive, but thrive?”
Contrary to some of the skepticism that resulted from last week’s HBCU meetings, especially after Walter M. Kimbrough, president of Dillard University in New Orleans, LA, wrote about the visit to the White House to meet with Pres. Trump, that, “…there was very little listening to HBCU presidents today…,” Congressman Walker’s office was upbeat about the dialogue that took place at the fly-in conference the following day.
According to Jack Minor, Rep. Walker’s communications director, HBCU presidents and chancellors were afforded plenty of opportunities to be heard during the day-long event that was replete with panel discussions, and remarks from Republican leaders such as Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, and House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, who said at the conference that he was supportive of year-round Pell Grants for HBCU students.
“I have always valued the importance of HBCUs,” said Congressman Walker in a statement after the fly-in. “With more than 100 HBCUs across the nation – and eleven here in North Carolina, they are an integral part of our higher education system.”
“On a more personal note, my wife, Kelly, is a graduate of Winston-Salem State University and has found success as a nurse practitioner, which she attributes in part to the strong education she received. I believe it is as important as ever to have Republicans engage with HBCUs. On Tuesday, we made big strides to bring bipartisan support to HBCUs and create an open dialogue to address issues they face. I look forward to continuing to work together for the betterment of our students. This is not the first step, but it certainly is not the last.”
But what about the bottom-line? How committed are Republicans to earmarking anything near the $25 billion HBCU leaders want to see in the federal budget?
On Tuesday morning, The Peacemaker got an answer the HBCU chancellors and presidents might not like.“Everything here is Obamacare-oriented [right now], [so] until we get through that,” said Walker spokesman Jack Minor regarding where the GOP-led Congress’ primary attention is currently, adding that what Pres. Trump’s budget eventually looks like also plays a key role.
Minor went on to say that’s why Rep. Walker convened last week’s fly-in when he did, so that it would be at the beginning of the budget consideration process.
Indeed, it has been reported by McClatchy News that “Walker, chair of the conservative Republican Study Committee, sent a letter to House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chair Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, and top committee Democrat Elijah Cummings of Maryland, calling for hearings on federal grants, contracts and cooperative agreements for HBCUs.”
But establishing relationships and “trust” first, according to Minor, was important and the primary goal.
Rep. Walker added that Democrats and Republicans fighting over how much funding the nation’s HBCUs should get “is a good thing.” Jack Minor added that Rep. Walker does intend to work with the Congressional Black Caucus, which has traditionally been the strongest advocate for HBCUs in Congress.
“The schools were very open about the help they needed,” Minor said. “Republicans now control the House, Senate and the White House, so if [HBCUs] are going to get it, it will have to largely come from us.”
Minor also confirmed that unlike their White House visit with Pres. Trump the day before the fly-in (which in the Walker press release seemed to be royally thrown under the bus), HBCU presidents and chancellors got plenty of opportunity to express their views about the value, history and needs of their institutions during the conference.
One aspect of the GOP – HBCU outreach drama to keep an eye on is how students on various campuses are reacting. Last week at Howard University, students and faculty expressed disgust with their president’s participation in the meetings, particularly with Pres. Trump. Vandals spray-painted their dismay on the campus yard, calling Howard Pres. Wayne A.I. Frederick the “overseer” of the “Trump Plantation.”
That response echoed something Rep. Alma Adams said in an interview after the HBCU fly-in conference regarding Pres. Trump’s suddenly enthusiastic welcome of the HBCU presidents and chancellors to the Oval Office.
“We’re going to have to hold him to what he says,” Rep. Adams says. “He certainly wasn’t supportive [during the campaign] of people who look like me. So I don’t know.”
However, a review of Trump’s campaign remarks last year during a visit to Charlotte indicate that he did voice support for HBCUs. During his “new deal for Black America” remarks, Trump told the mostly White crowd gathered, “My [education plan] will also ensure funding for Historical Black Colleges and Universities, more affordable two and four-year colleges, and support for trade and vocational education,” a YouTube video, published on Oct. 26, 2016, shows.
WSSU Chancellor Robinson is one of those who now wants to see proof in the Republican pudding.
“Although lawmakers expressed their support for our mission, it is critical that they demonstrate that support with significant budget allocations and policy actions,” Robinson said in a follow-up statement to his earlier letter.