A Lack of Engagement with HBCU Advisory Board is Pushing Trump into Obama Territory

The Trump Administration has created historic levels of policy engagement and funding for historically black colleges in just two short years. But much of that support has come without the advice and insight of its President Advisory Board on HBCUs, and that may cost future opportunities to increase outcomes for HBCUs heading into the 2020 political campaign season.

The board, chaired by former Thurgood Marshall College Fund CEO and leading human resources executive Johnny Taylor, is stocked with a blend of new presidents and corporate voices, and familiar advocates from within the HBCU sector. If there is a brain trust that could guide the White House on direct effort to support black college engagement in agricultural sustainability, criminal justice reform, healthcare expansion, and improving outcomes in the K-12-workforce development pipeline, it would be this group.

But the board has yet to meet with the White House, and there have been very few communications from the White House Initiative on HBCUs suggesting that there is activity on Capitol Hill or beyond to continue President Trump’s streak of HBCU victories.

This silence, this disengagement, is eerily reminiscent black college leaders being held at arm’s length in 2012 when presidents and chancellors in HBCU communities nationwide were enraged about the Obama White House destroying HBCU enrollment with changes to the Parent PLUS Loan program.

Then, members of the Congressional Black Caucus and former WHI-HBCU Executive Director John Silvanus Wilson, pleaded with HBCU leaders to avoid public critique of President Obama for fear of jeopardizing the black vote heading into what was expected to be a tight reelection campaign. Most presidents acquiesced; a few like former Spelman College President Beverly D. Tatum and Hampton University President William Harvey, did not.

Obama was reelected and outcomes became worse. It took five years for HBCUs to recover their lost enrollment numbers and associated revenues. Saint Paul’s College closed a year after Obama returned to office. Bennett College for Women was at the beginning stages of what eventually led to its accreditation loss for freefalling finances.

Obama never did meet with his board of advisors, and Trump has been able to take advantage of improving the destructive outcomes which resulted from Obama’s failure to engage. While HBCUs are currently not facing a direct crisis like the Parent PLUS loan horror, there are emergent needs that he must address with the board to support black college autonomy.

HBCUs need states to end their illegal withholding of matching funds for agricultural appropriations from the US Department of Agriculture. Many states are building programming around free community college, and HBCUs stand to directly and dramatically lose enrollment and revenues without federal intervention to incentivize black college attendance.

As Congress moves slowly toward rewriting the Higher Education Act, the White House can take a lead on helping to jumpstart HBCUs redesigning curriculum and online learning infrastructure with grants from the US Department of Education. And we need better synergy between black colleges and the White House to redirect support programs from facilities renovation and construction loans to endowment building incentives and tax relief for corporations which partner with black colleges.

Trump has earned credit for support of black colleges, and he’ll earn criticism if the White House fails to meet with HBCU advocates on the key issues of the day impacting these schools. And unlike Obama, his keen past record on HBCUs won’t be enough to shift key voting blocs throughout the mid-Atlantic and the Southeast United States; it will have to rest on what he’ll promise to do for HBCUs in the next two, or possibly six years.

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