Repeatedly during his first 100 days, President Donald J. Trump signaled to the leaders and supporters of historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) that the federal support on which HBCUs depend would remain a priority under his administration.
One sign of hope was an executive order that the president signed in February to move the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities from the Education Department to the White House, which some believed was an indication that HBCUs would indeed continue to be a priority under the new administration that had been expressed by the President.
But, doubts surfaced just weeks later after dozens of HBCU presidents and leaders met with the President in the Oval Office Feb. 27 for a meeting that was widely panned as little more than a photo op. That same month, Education Secretary Betsey DeVos was heavily criticized for a statement in which she praised HBCUs as “real pioneers when it comes to school choice.”
HBCUs were actually birthed from legalized racial segregation when African-Americans had no choice but to attend Black schools. It was, in part, the aftermath of that statement that caused graduates at Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach to boo and turn their backs on DeVos in protest as she began their commencement speech May 10.
Still, the Trump administration has sent yet another troubling message concerning HBCUs, contained in a signing statement connected to a temporary federal spending measure. The statement said, “Historically Black College and University Capital Financing Program Account” among other funds, the order said, “My Administration shall treat provisions that allocate benefits on the basis of race, ethnicity, and gender…in a manner consistent with the requirement to afford equal protection of the laws under the Due Process Clause of the Constitution’s Fifth Amendment.”
This HBCU Capital Financing Program Account, which provides HBCUs with funding at reasonable rates to build new and renovate infrastructure on their aging campuses, was created in 1992 as part of the Higher Education Act passed by Congress. According to Black lawmakers and other HBCU advocates, race is not a criteria and to qualify for the loans the schools must meet standards based on mission, accreditation status and the year an institution was established.
Hours after the White House released the signing statement, Michigan Rep. John Conyers, who is the ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, and Congressional Black Caucus Chairman Cedric Richmond (D-Louisiana) issued a joint response that questioned both Trump’s understanding of the Capital Financing Program and his commitment to HBCUs.
“Trump’s statement is not only misinformed factually, it is not grounded in any serious constitutional analysis,” it read. “For a president who pledged to reach out to African-American and other minorities, this statement is stunningly careless and divisive. We urge him to reconsider immediately.”
Dr. Lezli Baskerville, president/CEO of the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education (NAFEO), in a lengthy statement noted that HBCUs serve diverse student bodies.
“Since their founding, HBCUs have been open to, welcoming and supportive of persons from all races, ethnicities, religions, and both genders except for the gender-specific HBCUs,” she said. “HBCUs enroll roughly 30 percent of non-African American students. Their faculty is more than 40 percent non-African American. Today 5 HBCUs are more than 50 percent non-African American. At least one is majority Hispanic serving. One is being shepherded by a white female president.”
If the administration were to withdraw from the program, she added, it would be “devastating to these equal opportunity institutions to whose presidents and chancellors President Trump pledged the largest investments in their history.”
The President has hastened to clarify the signing statement and assuage his critics, stating that the signing statement “does not affect my unwavering support for HBCUs and their critical education missions.” Noting the executive order he signed in February to strengthen their capacity, he said his commitment “remains unchanged.”
But, Conyers and Richmond aren’t buying it:
“Sadly and shamefully, HBCUs, including the schools that President Trump met with, are left to wonder whether he wants to help or hurt them,” they said in the joint statement. “If President Trump really wants to help HBCUs, he’ll implement the proposals the CBC has suggested to him in several letters, including the letter we sent him on April 27, calling for robust funding for a host of programs that support students served by these schools.”