If the first black president of the United States wouldn’t look out for historically black colleges and universities, and no one made a sound about it until he was preparing to leave the White House, does it make a difference to lawmakers if black colleges live or die in the years ahead?
This is the ultimate legacy of Barack Obama’s relationship with HBCUs – not his woeful 1-2 lifetime record in HBCU commencement speeches, not his stiff arm of federal black lawmakers when they appealed to him for mercy on his tightened financial aid rule making, and not even the nearly $300 million he cost black colleges through lost tuition revenue and decreased funding from federal HBCU earmarks.
President Obama’s most profound legacy is yet to be realized – but will be the private moments in state legislative chambers, and downtown bars and hotel lobbies throughout the south and mid-atlantic when appropriation chairmen and higher education committee members will look into the faces of pro-HBCU legislators and ask the question to which there is no answer: “why are you asking me for help when you didn’t seek or receive support from your boy over the last eight years?”
President Obama was the perfect leader for conservative lawmakers who have been wrestling for 50-plus years on how to eliminate support for public historically black colleges without bringing down the wrath of black communities, and destroying election prospects with moderate conservative voters. At every turn, federal lawsuits, student protests and alumni mobilization thwarted the efforts of middle-aged conservative white guys to axe support for schools governed, operated and patronized by black folks throughout the south.
But when Obama and his no-drama team of Ivy League-bred, ‘New Black’ advisors began to wrestle with reducing financial aid borrower fraud and for-profit degree traps, someone misinformed the squad that HBCUs were among the biggest higher ed scams going, and that no one would ever question the black president as a culprit behind the downfall of black schools, whose graduation rates, loan defaults and low job placement figures deemed them worthless to higher ed anyway.
What the squad didn’t know, and what Obama never quite figured out, is that the HBCU story of graduation rates and low-scale ROI wasn’t a symptom of incompetence or scamming, but a function of disparate support in resources – the same support that federal judges in Mississippi, Tennessee, Alabama, and Maryland have all ruled in varying forms over the last 30 years to be unconstitutional. And while Obama had every opportunity to address these issues not as racial problems, but as economic and social justice issues impacting all Americans, he chose at every turn to double down on his disdain for HBCUs.
He told Morehouse graduates to be better fathers and to stop being cynical. He tried to create a national ranking system for colleges to expose institutions with bad metrics. He proposed that everyone go to community college for free. He told the CBC to tell HBCUs to stop complaining and get their graduation rates up. He never attended one HBCU National Conference. He told a Southern University student that we can’t have HBCU graduates borrowing to earn degrees that won’t work for them. He told Howard graduates to embrace their blackness and to vote, as if they hadn’t shown the entire country how to do it 60 years prior.
And now that it is almost over, there is no incentive for any democrat or republican to give anything, to see any potential in HBCUs; because the guy who we thought would be genetically wired to peer into the historic and current value of our schools, only saw them as a drain on resources and a hub for black complacency and underachievement. He never learned that schools which serve the poor and marginalized aren’t designed to look or perform like Harvard, that they weren’t originally designed to produce leaders of international politics, business and government, but leaders of communities.
And they just happen to be so tenacious and focused in this work, that now and then they do churn out a graduate who is the best in the country, sometimes the world, at doing something – without the resources that are hard-earned and deserved, but which never come.
This is why the Department of Education can roll out a new program offering early enrollment to Pell Grant-eligible high school students, but only invite two HBCUs to participate in the pilot program – even though HBCUs enroll a large percentage of the nation’s black Pell Grant-eligible college students.
This is why legislators in North Carolina can draft a bill seeking to slash tuition costs at three HBCUs to a price lower than the costs of textbooks for a semester, change the names of the schools, and expect us to believe that it’s not a foundation for decreased enrollment and eventual merger into other UNC system institutions.
This is why Florida can manipulate FAMU through board appointments, why Louisiana can cut budgets to the verge of inoperability, and why Tennessee can make uneven applications of governance for its flagship HBCU. This is why South Carolina State is being ran by legislators, and why higher ed officials in Maryland think they can avoid making their public HBCUs whole with investments in secondary education.
This is why black lawmakers, HBCU alumni and HBCU students have been largely silent and mostly unaware of these critical issues. Because if we let our boy get away with it, what claim do we have against anyone in the future who will do greater and more permanent harm?