Trump’s Tense Relationship with HBCUs

On Feb. 27, 2018, after appointing the former head of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, Johnny C. Taylor, as chairman of the President’s Board of Advisers on HBCUs, President Donald Trump stated that his administration had “made great strides in strengthening HBCUs,” proceeding to call them “cherished and vital institutions in our country.” 

Crystal A. deGregory
Crystal A. deGregory

In reality, Trump has demonstrated fundamental confusion about what HBCUs are and stand for, says Crystal A. deGregory, PhD, acclaimed historian, HBCU scholar, and director of the Atwood Institute for Race, Education, and the Democratic Ideal at Kentucky State University. But in spite of this fact, deGregory and other HBCU scholars largely agree that Congress, under the Trump administration, has achieved important gains for these colleges and universities.

[Above: Crystal deGregory speaks at a Kentucky State University event in remembrance of the university’s late president, Rufus B. Atwood.]

HBCUs and the Oval Office

Marybeth Gasman
Marybeth Gasman

The U.S. Department of Education under President Barack Obama enacted several key policies that angered many HBCU leaders, including terminating summer Pell Grants and tightening requirements for the Parent PLUS loan program, a federal low-interest loan that helps parents assist their children with college costs. In addition, his administration struggled to communicate effectively with them, says Marybeth Gasman, PhD, director of the Penn Center for Minority-Serving Institutions at the University of Pennsylvania and the author and editor of more than 25 books about HBCUs. 

However, despite the common perception that Obama hurt more than helped HBCUs, quantitative research by Ivory A. Toldson, PhD, president and CEO of the Quality Education for Minorities Network, shows that HBCUs ultimately benefited financially under the 44th president. Revenue from all federal student loan programs increased by $117.8 million for HBCUs during Obama’s time in office, Toldson’s research indicates. 

As soon as Trump was elected, members of the HBCU community got to work in an attempt to establish a meaningful working relationship with the new president. In December 2016, the United Negro College Fund (UNCF), a philanthropic and advocacy organization for students from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups that includes 37 HBCU members, issued a 14-page memo to the president-elect titled “Ten Ways to Invest in Historically Black Colleges and Universities.” The document encouraged the renewal of traditional, non-controversial efforts such as the convening of a White House summit on HBCUs and the re-issuing of a presidential executive order in support of these institutions — a practice dating back to President Jimmy Carter. 

UNCF also urged Trump to incorporate HBCUs into the 10-point “New Deal for African Americans” he promoted during his campaign. Specifically, they hoped to be included in the $1 trillion national infrastructure investment he proposed, noting the more than 700 buildings on the National Register of Historic Places that are located on HBCU campuses, many of which are deteriorating due to a lack of resources. 

Another item on UNCF’s list was a request to both protect and increase the amount of funding for Pell Grants — a significant source of federal aid for HBCUs given that nearly three-fourths of their students rely on these grants. In addition, the organization asked the Trump administration to implement educational accountability measures that take into consideration the “degree of difficulty” that HBCUs face in terms of ensuring the academic success of their frequently underprepared and disadvantaged student bodies. 

To date, the majority of UNCF’s requests have gone unaddressed by Trump. However, HBCUs have been able to secure some critical funding over the past two years. But, according to HBCU leaders and scholars, everything that has been achieved thus far under this administration has been the result of a partnership between the colleges and Congress — as opposed to direct actions by the president himself.

One of the most significant accomplishments occurred in spring 2017, when a bipartisan group of Congressmen and women agreed to restore year-round Pell Grants; as a result of this action, low-income students can now receive federal funding for the summer term, helping them complete their degrees in a more timely manner. Because HBCUs do not generally have large endowments, students’ ability to access Pell Grants plays an essential role in ensuring the financial health of these institutions, experts say. 

A second bipartisan Congressional achievement during Trump’s tenure has been the granting of full loan forgiveness to four HBCUs that had been affected by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005. Included in the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018, the provision released the schools from a combined debt of more than $300 million. 

Publicity Faux Pas

Despite a few significant policy gains under the Trump White House, the administration’s efforts to publicly align itself with HBCU leaders have consistently fallen flat. 

Walter Kimbrough
Walter Kimbrough

Approximately two months after Trump entered office, the White House invited several dozen leaders of HBCUs to meet with Education Secretary Betsy DeVos for a listening session. “I thought it was a great idea because she doesn’t have a strong background in higher education and didn’t know anything about HBCUs,” recalls Dillard University President Walter Kimbrough, PhD.

During the event, DeVos praised HBCUs for being “pioneers of school choice” — a statement that angered many because these institutions were founded in response to segregation and racial discrimination. “It’s apparent she has never read anything about the education of African Americans or HBCUs. A total rewrite of ed. History,” Gasman tweeted following the event. 

Kimbrough, however, prefers to give DeVos the benefit of the doubt. “I think she was trying to find a way to make a connection: ‘I understand school choice, so let me apply it in this HBCU context.’ It just didn’t go the way [she planned],” he says. 

Ultimately, the listening session never happened, and instead, Trump invited those in attendance into the Oval Office for what has become a somewhat awkward and infamous photo op. 

In May 2017, DeVos delivered her first commencement address as Secretary of Education at Bethune-Cookman University, an HBCU in Daytona Beach, Fla. Although their efforts were ultimately unsuccessful, more than 50,000 activists signed a petition asking the school’s administration to cancel her speech. On the day of graduation, some students stood with their backs to DeVos, others heckled and booed during her address, and at one point the crowd got so loud that the university’s president, Edison O. Jackson, threatened to end the ceremony and mail graduates their diplomas.     

deGregory presents University of Kentucky professor and activist Jamye Coleman Williams with the first Atwood Institute for Race, Education, and the Democratic Ideal Master Teacher award in April 2018.
deGregory presents University of Kentucky professor and activist Jamye Coleman Williams with the first Atwood Institute for Race, Education, and the Democratic Ideal Master Teacher award in April 2018.

That same month, Trump dumbfounded HBCU policy advocates with his comment about a $1.1 trillion government spending bill that included a 25-year-old federal program for HBCUs to finance construction projects on their campuses. After signing the bill into law, the president said that such funding for HBCUs may be unconstitutional because the money is allocated to schools with a particular focus on race. According to deGregory, such a statement illustrates Trump’s fundamental confusion regarding the history of HBCUs and how they operate; an institution’s designation as an HBCU is based on whether it was established before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and strives to provide a high-quality education to students of all races and ethnicities. 

Tensions between Trump and HBCU leaders continued into September 2017. 

Every fall, the White House hosts a conference designed to promote the exchange of information between government officials and HBCU presidents. The first one hosted by the Trump administration, however, was characterized by calls from many HBCU leaders for its cancellation in reaction to the president’s response to the violent “Unite the Right” rally that had taken place one month prior in Charlottesville, Va. 

As for 2018, one of the biggest indicators of the continued underlying tension was the total absence of government officials at HBCU commencements. “No cabinet secretary, no high-level administration person [spoke at] any HBCU commencement this year — to me, that tells a story,” Kimbrough says.  

In addition, in August, the Education Department announced that Howard University, one of the most highly regarded HBCUs in the nation, will no longer be able to receive millions of dollars of financial aid money in advance, but rather will have to front the costs for students and seek reimbursement from the federal government. At the time, Howard President Wayne A.I. Frederick, MD, told several media outlets that he didn’t understand the reasoning behind the policy change.

Looking Forward

deGregory believes it is wise for HBCUs to be cautious about future partnerships with the Trump administration. She warns that policies that may seem supportive under Trump could have unexpected, negative consequences for the African American community. Such effects, she believes, could manifest in the form of a racially charged narrative of  “‘look at all we did for you, and you still haven’t been able to cut it’” to “something far more injurious, such as the dismantling of these institutions, through what on the surface look like partnerships or mergers.” 

Furthermore, deGregory is concerned about the possibility that HBCUs will one day no longer exist. “There is talk from the Trump administration of HBCUs being less race-focused and more race-neutral,” she says, arguing that this would “mean a kind of erasure” that would make it increasingly difficult for these colleges to attract African American students. “One of the things keeping HBCUs alive in this era is that they appear to be unapologetically black spaces in a nation where blackness is perennially under attack,” deGregory adds. 

For Kimbrough, the jury is still out on whether Trump is a true supporter of these institutions. He’s most concerned about what will become of Title III funding, federal money that is awarded to HBCUs on a yearly basis for a wide range of projects, from infrastructure to academic programs. “That’s going to be the first real significant test,” he says. “Everything else is sort of nice, but we’re talking about $85 million a year.”

Ginger O’Donnell is a staff writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity. This article ran in our November 2018 issue.