Yesterday, news broke that four historically black universities will no longer owe the federal government money they borrowed to help rebuild campuses ravaged by Hurricane Katrina.
From the Advocate:
“It would’ve been crippling,” said Walter Kimbrough, the president of Dillard University, which borrowed about $160 million from the Department of Education after several feet of water inundated its Gentilly campus.
Many of the college’s students come from middle- or low-income families — with roughly 75 percent eligible for federal Pell Grants — meaning that hiking tuition wasn’t an option, Kimbrough said.
Xavier University borrowed $165 million through the program, while Southern University at New Orleans took out $44 million, according to U.S. Department of Education data compiled by the Wall Street Journal. Tougaloo borrowed another $28.5 million.
The Journal reported in 2017 that the four institutions together had paid back a total of roughly $12.4 million.
The news is the latest in a short, confounding relationship between HBCUs and the Trump Administration. And this particular chapter shows just how odd this couple can become in the effort to keep our campuses alive.
Donald Trump is a racist. His chief of staff is a racist. Steve Scalise, a Congressman from Louisiana whose life was saved by two black Capitol Police officers, one of whom a North Carolina Central University graduate, has a racist past that is more than a notion– his voting record includes opposition to making Martin Luther King Jr. day a state holiday, and formerly being open to the impeachment of Barack Obama.
Thad Cochran, a Senator from Mississippi, was among eight senators who in 2005 refused to endorse a formal apology from the US Senate to the victims and descendants of lynching.
Bill Cassidy, a Senator from Lousiana, refused to denounce President Trump’s ‘shithole countries’ comments.
These are five white men who are either racist or who play to racist ideology to satisfy their constituents. All of them were involved in drafting, reviewing or signing a federal spending bill which allows four HBCUs to walk away from a debt of which they collectively couldn’t pay five percent over the last ten years.
“Big, important things can be accomplished in a bi-partisan way in this Congress,” Dr. Kimbrough said. “We are grateful for the leadership on both sides of the aisle, including Cedric Richmond and Steve Scalise, and our Senators Bill Cassidy and John Kennedy. Most especially, we want to thank Senator Thad Cochran of Mississippi for his leadership that was key to getting this done.”
This kind of reaction from Dr. Kimbrough well reflects the position of many HBCU presidents. Most, if not all, are in the unenviable position of having to pick a destructive poison in the name of growing their campuses.
They must choose between distancing themselves from people and policies which are socially offensive black folks, or to side with people and policies which can fund the institutions which educate and train the black folks who will reject them for doing so. There’s nothing easy about the choice, and nothing ever gives a complete win.
But Dr. Kimbrough, among the most active HBCU presidents in social media and public commentary, gave voice to President Trump’s HBCU introduction, most recently in a January editorial on his 13th year as a college president.
This was the year that HBCU presidents found themselves in the Oval Office. There is only ONE picture where you can see me (I have it, and I’m not showing it!) I did my best to hide because I knew we had been hoodwinked! And Twitter kicked our ass!
There was no good that was going to come from this event, and in fact, every time there is a bad story about Black folks, a version of this picture is used.
Which is why I had to go on CNN the next day to set the record straight.
It put me in the dog house with my friend Omarosa for a while. Of course she is the news story of the day, but after her time ends in the White House, I’m going to tell the WHOLE STORY on the HBCU presidents in the White House.
The Whole Story!
Apparently, the whole story hadn’t been written, because less than a month later Dr. Kimbrough’s own campus has been spared millions of dollars in debt by the same Congress and same White House with a clear penchant for injecting race and racism into public policy.
This same government has spared HBCUs from a Title III funding fiasco, from harmful Obama-era policies on gainful employment and borrower defense and preserved flat-funding for HBCU-specific funding programs while others were being slashed with historic cuts.
Dr. Kimbrough gets singled out because he has the most public voice on the relationship between Trump and HBCUs. And it should be; he was among the dozens of HBCU presidents in the Oval Office during last year’s HBCU Fly-In, and was particularly vexed when he didn’t get a chance to make what was supposed to have been a public statement in support of HBCUs before members of the president’s cabinet.
But he represents the complex hypocrisy which is embedded in the job description of every college president. How do you endorse policy and not politicians? How do you speak truth to power when power controls the purse strings? Why are some racists or race-baiters worthy of praise, when others are not?
But most of all, how do you convince HBCU stakeholders that racism is necessary for HBCU growth?
President Trump can be a racist and his cabinet and appointees can help HBCUs at the same time. And because politics typically do not work out so messily, this creates chaos in how our leaders react to policy-making and advocacy.
We’re used to Republicans cutting our funding, proposing our campuses be merged or closed, appointing moles to our boards, and creating rules to marginalize our growth in the name of fiscal austerity.
It is challenging when one of the most disliked presidents in history has a strange habit of supporting black colleges. But our leaders must be up for the challenge. We have to be able to look to them to provide for us the nuances behind legislative lobbying, relationship building, and looking for love where hate abides blatantly and covertly.
Our presidents and chancellors have to be better than us at understanding the long-game of politics, and mastering the truth that blasting Republicans today fuels distrust in our allegiance tomorrow.
The same liberals and conservatives working together to get the Katrina loan deal done will be working together on future policies concerning financial aid, performance-based funding, credit hours, the value of accreditation in federal oversight and funding of higher education, Title III and Title IX policymaking, and a slew of other issues with direct impact on black colleges. Many of those conservatives today support President Trump, and will tomorrow remember how loud or silent we were on Trump, the controversial catalyst for their legislative agenda.
We can win while being black in America, it is just exceedingly difficult to do both at once in higher education. It is time for our leaders to set our agenda and show us the road to victory, even if they have to drag us kicking and screaming along the way and look like race traitors in the process.