Leaders in the Trump Administration, at historically black colleges and universities and their advocacy organizations have about one week to decide if the longstanding White House Initiative on HBCUs should continue to exist. Because if they delay or half-heartedly move in either direction, the biggest casualty in a game of political posturing, appearances, messaging and future elections won’t be the actors in the contest; it will be HBCUs themselves.
It would be easy to say that this conversation started last Friday when Thurgood Marshall College Fund President and CEO Johnny Taylor wrote to White House officials requesting that the annual HBCU National Conference be postponed in order for the administration to identify an executive director and advisory board for the initiative. It was a request echoed by prominent members of the federal legislature, including HBCU Caucus co-founder and North Carolina A&T State University alumna Congresswoman Alma Adams, Congressional Black Caucus Chairman Cedric Richmond, and privately by many HBCU presidents.
But peril for the conference didn’t start with Taylor’s request or the co-signing by black lawmakers and HBCU leaders; it didn’t even start with the uneven remarks made by President Donald Trump in the days following violence and bigotry in Charlottesville, VA. It began with the initial fly-in of HBCU presidents in February, the clearest litmus for how the relationship between President Trump and black colleges would be destined to grow in the coming months.
That meeting, the scope of which became necessary after eight years of negligence under the Obama Administration, gave optimists the belief that the Trump Administration was willing to do something for black colleges. After all, no other president had welcomed dozens of HBCU leaders in the Oval Office for any reason; photo op or otherwise.
Then we got the news that the president’s staff considered the HBCU Capital Financing Program to be a potentially discriminatory funding program, which could be axed by executive privilege under the Constitution. The White House walked back those statements.
Then came the budget recommendations from the White House. Funding for HBCUs remained flat, but support for programs critical to HBCU students support – Pell Grant surplus, work study and college prep programs, faced cuts.
Since inauguration, the HBCU-Trump Administration has been an uneasy one thanks to our perceptions about the president and his views on race, in tandem with historic shortcomings in federal and state support which continue to bear the burden of racist vestiges. HBCUs and racism will forever be joined at the hip, but today’s struggle is that too many can ill-afford to get in the way of relationship building with the federal government.
This is the fear that so many black folks had about trusting Trump and his overtures, because now our campuses and leaders face struggle tied to a lack of resources, or lost credibility within our own communities. Boycotting or postponing the conference may give the White House and sympathetic lawmakers reason to cry “unwilling to work together” against us and to use it in federal and state budget making.
President Trump froze over the cool relationship with HBCUs with his indefensible remarks in defense of Nazis and Klansmen protesting in Charlottesville. HBCUs cannot sustain cuts from the Department of Education, or to have HBCU and MSI line items cut out of agencies like the Departments of Defense, Homeland Security, Transportation, Health and Human Services, and State.
They cannot afford additional cuts to Pell Grants, Title III or to capital financing, but there is growing worry that refusing to work with the Trump Administration will leave no room for advocacy or angst to or from HBCUs during the next budget cycle. The Congressional Black Caucus maintains that the Trump Administration refuses to work collaboratively on important issues within the black community – including HBCUs – and that at this point, all within our communities should be at the end of our collective rope.
It’s understandable, but being at the end of our rope does nothing for Cheyney University, Stillman College, Bennett College and other campuses facing closure within the next 18 months, or in the next week.
So we need to decide now if we’re going to work with the Trump Administration or if irreparable damage – past and future – is not worth the attempt. If the work is worth it, then how do you convince Black America to allow black college leaders and black people working for Trump to do their work without being viewed as race traitors?
If the work is not worth it, and President Trump decides to go full Trump on HBCUs like he did transgender soldiers, where is the money for survival coming from?
The HBCU conference is more than a meeting this year. It is the symbol of the HBCU community being at a political crossroads outside of our own making. It is unfair that HBCU presidents have to decide between boycotting a perceived racist or supporting one, with billions of dollars, millions of lives and hundreds of years of history tied to their decision.
It’s not fair that the president’s inconsistency makes it virtually impossible for anyone to accept appointment to the WHI-HBCU advisory board or as its executive director, with the very real threat of cultural suicide looming over both.
No matter what the CBC, HBCU alumni, donors or students say, too many schools will cease to exist with even moderate changes by the federal government and its funding mechanisms. We send too few of our students and too few of our gifts to make it without federal dollars. And so now we must face the question of how much our schools are worth because whatever we do in this peculiar time will dictate how much attention we will receive from future presidents, regardless of party or sanity.
Either we boycott madness or broker peace – which one makes our cause and our struggle worthwhile?