Former Spelman College President Beverly Daniel Tatum had asked a legitimate question of the group of advisors assembled for its regular meeting with the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities. It was one of her first meetings as a member of the committee charged with informing the White House on how to best engage with and support the community of Black institutions which, at the time and unbeknownst to them, would soon face a significant financial crisis under the Obama administration.
“When do we get to meet with the president?” Tatum asked her fellow advisors.
“Never,” said Dianne Boardley Suber, then president of Saint Augustine’s University.
The room laughed. All assembled knew that Suber’s comment was jokingly submitted but soberly serious in its gravity. The board never met with the president because that wasn’t its design. The White House Initiative never really reported to the president because the perennial hope is that it will be mostly performative in supporting Department of Education initiatives rather than a coalition of Capitol Hill table shakers.
U.S. President Joe Biden’s version of this same board captures a lot of the same energy of the editions which preceded it, but with one small variation; its membership requires that the White House choose between engaging with HBCU needs and proposals, or suffering a sociopolitical hit that disaffected Black celebrities can transmit to all-important voting blocs.
It was all so simple when the most famous people on the White House HBCU Initiative Board were HBCU presidents. They were the least likely to complain about policy gone wrong, or in the case of Obama, outright hostility. They must always be silent partners and partisan neutral with any president because every president sets the agenda for congressional spending and agency policy that is the difference between survival and inoperability for HBCUs.
Now with appointees like Taraji P. Henson and Chris Paul, you have iconic celebrities who may wonder out loud and on Instagram ‘when do we get to meet with the president?’ And if there’s not a satisfactory answer, they have the autonomy to ask ‘so what exactly is this board supposed to do?’
The answer is to follow the lead of the sitting and outgoing presidents on the board and to not ask about speaking or taking pictures with Biden or Vice President Kamala Harris, but rather, the boring work of meeting with cabinet secretaries and under-secretaries to determine how HBCUs can get more grants, and how more HBCU graduates can secure employment with the federal government.
To the White House’s credit, the board is an outstanding blend of HBCU leadership, advocacy, and investment. The presidents on this board represent some of the strongest HBCUs in agriculture and S.T.E.M. education, like Prairie View A&M University President Ruth Simmons, Virginia State University President Makola Abdullah, and Norfolk State University President Javaune Adams-Gaston.
The alumni on this board represent people who know how to redirect money from corporate entities to HBCUs, like Paul and acclaimed business executive, philanthropist, and North Carolina A&T State University alumnus Willie Deese.
Current and former lawmakers like Shevrin Jones and Alabama State University President Quinton Ross know how to connect state-level political support with federal spending and programming, which can empower more funding coming to public and private HBCUs from state appropriations.
The White House has historically made sport of ignoring executive talent like this on its advisory boards and specifically its HBCU coalition because the members have been either been politically constrained or satisfied to have the glittering line of ‘White House Advisor’ on their resumes. But this board is playing with house money; a group of folks with a bunch of Twitter followers who are living and leading Black people through a racial reckoning driven by pandemic and the murder of George Floyd.
Add that to the real threat of the Democratic party getting washed in the midterms and the second coming of Donald Trump, and there is every reason for Biden to actually use this board in governing and not just as a more sophisticated version of keeping hot sauce in a purse.