Dietra Trent is a doctoral-level expert on education, with a Hampton University pedigree. She is the new executive director of the White House Initiative on Advancing Educational Equity, Opportunity, and Excellence through HBCUs, which by any other name has always been a primary advocacy point for the HBCU sector.
But under the Biden Administration, Trent has the unenviable task of standing up tall for an administration that has made consistent work of giving Black colleges the bad side of a short attention span and even shorter memory arc. As the first woman to lead the office, her appointment was overshadowed by a White House who packaged her coming out party with that of Supreme Court Justice Nominee Kentanji Brown Jackson, whose selections were seemingly both designed as a socio-political bookend for Black History Month.
It wasn’t surprising that Trent was not given the media heraldry that previous directors have received; the administration took more time to find and appoint her to the curiously-renamed initiative than any other White House has spent over the course of a term.
Behind her now is 13 months of fact sheets, symbolism-steeped rhetoric, photo opp appearances, and fake news being carried by water-carrying Black media instead of the actual work that was promised on the campaign trail. Ahead of her are long hours trying to figure out how to make up for at least eight years of missing data reports dating back to the Obama Administration and the entirety of the Trump Administration.
If the Administration’s recent history is any indicator, she will have to fight and network her way into meetings on federal funding and grant opportunities where HBCUs are likely to be forgotten in favor of community colleges and predominantly white minority-serving institutions.
And all of the HBCU alumni in the White House and around the world, including Vice President Kamala Harris and Advisor Cedric Richmond won’t be able to help her, because if they had any real influence on the Biden HBCU strategy, they wouldn’t have taken this long to find her and wouldn’t have put her in such a precarious position to represent the sector.
To many presidents and chancellors, the bottom line is very clear. Covid relief funding that everybody and every institution in the country received is not a victory for HBCUs — it is a sign of equal access in the throes of a global health crisis. The PARTNERS Act, which became law in 2020 and mandates that federal agencies report to the White House their plans to support HBCUs, has yielded no windfall of public commitments to HBCUs.
In fact, the only one easily found in searching agency websites is a 2021 blog post from the Small Business Administration which essentially admits how little the agency bothers to track HBCU support despite awarding more than $3 million in grants to HBCU small business development centers at Howard University and Jackson State University between 2020 and 2021.
We found that the SBA failed to communicate with key small business development centers and district offices about its planned efforts to support HBCUs. The SBA did not have annual plans for this initiative from 2013–2017.
There was also a lack of communication between SBA headquarters staff and their HBCU partners regarding the 2018 annual plan. The SBA did not prepare an annual plan until the end of fiscal year 2018. The agency did not share this plan with HBCUs once it was prepared and, instead, decided to focus its efforts on how to support HBCUs during the following fiscal year.
We also found, in 2019, that the SBA did not collect relevant information to develop a baseline and track its ongoing efforts to support HBCUs.
At least the SBA admits its shortcomings; no other agencies have bothered to explain their failures and no one from the White House, in spite of legislation dictating otherwise, has forced the issue.
HBCU advocates who know Trent vouch for her big credentials and matching-sized admiration of and aspirations for HBCUs in her new role. They believe in her and we do too; that’s why we’re committed to supporting her advocacy of HBCU programming of strength, shepherding institutions to meet federal compliance standards, and guiding how Capitol Hill level sets its understanding of HBCU competitiveness and funds it appropriately.
We know that she goes into this role not with a frail White House support system, but a non-existent one. We’ll shout as loudly as we can and be as visible as we can because she deserves more than the indignity of going it alone on behalf of 100 institutions.
And sadly, even all of us may not be enough for an administration that simply can’t or won’t see us.