Education Secretary Besty DeVos was in hot water this week after stating that historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) are “real pioneers when it comes to school choice” — a statement many criticized as ignorant of the circumstances under which HBCUs were formed: because African Americans were denied access to institutions of higher education.
Many of the nation’s HBCUs were founded after the Civil War as a result of the Morrill Act of 1890, which required that states — those that excluded African Americans from their land-grant colleges — establish separate institutions for these students.
People were quick to attack DeVos following her statement, which some said applauded the segregated education system of that time for giving black students “more options.” Others responded by pointing out that, when they were founded, HBCUs didn’t provide more choices but instead were the only choice for African American students.
On Twitter, the hashtag “HBCUs” was trending Monday evening as users continued to react to the education secretary’s slip up. DeVos also garnered criticism and harsh comments from lawmakers, with some reportedly calling her “tone-deaf” and “uninformed.”
DeVos attempted to backtrack on her statement Tuesday, noting that traditional school systems “failed to provide African Americans access to a quality education — or, sadly, more often to any education at all.” She followed this up with a tweet: “But your history was born not out of mere choice, but out of necessity, in the face of racism, and in the aftermath of the Civil War.”
All of this comes following a meeting between President Donald Trump, congressional lawmakers, and 85 HBCU leaders on Monday, the focus of which was on addressing the challenges and needs of HBCUs; discussions focused on infrastructure, college readiness, and financial aid. The meeting comes as Trump prepares to sign an executive order, a so-called New Deal for Black Americans, that will move the existing White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities from the U.S. Department of Education to the White House, where it will be overseen by an executive director appointed by Trump.
With continually decreasing enrollment — with only 231,000 students combined in 2014 — HBCUs are hoping Trump will demonstrate his commitment to ensuring a positive future for these historically important institutions.
While some praised Trump’s meeting with HBCU presidents as a step in the right direction, others — including some of the presidents themselves — criticized its execution. Walter Kimbrough, president of Dillard University, told USA Today that the last-minute meeting included “very little listening to HBCU president” and that he and his colleagues were only granted two minutes a piece to speak.
(photo via flickr/Gage Skidmore)