HBCU DIGEST: HBCU leaders are suffering from climate change

Virginia governor election: Glenn Youngkin beats Terry McAuliffe

There was a sense that the precursor to the 2022 midterms would be a telling sign of the country’s political temperature and future. Would trends for presidential and congressional winners hold with one side of the political spectrum balancing out the other? Would Trumpism, in more moderate but equally divisive packaging, win the day in purple states?

The answer, at least as of last week, is yes. Virginia’s gubernatorial seat went to Republican and Trump devotee Glenn Youngkin and his party control of the state’s House of Delegates.

The most ironic and telling sign of the shift? The GOP control wrestled away control from incumbent Lashrecse Aird, a Virginia State University alumna who represented Petersburg and pioneered the nation’s first Breonna Taylor bill.

If you thought that historically Black colleges were in a nasty political way during the Trump Administration, prepare for a lot worse. Trump built and mastered political theater during his four years in office, and HBCUs awkwardly served as stage dressing during his tenure. Now state elections will have the advantage of a red wave generated by revisionist history in education, concern about government spending, and coronavirus fatigue washes through conservative states and with particular strength in HBCU country. 

The question is two-fold; will a new class of GOP politicos still need to align with HBCUs to support their agendas and have HBCU communities learned the lessons of pushing against one party in favor of pulling another without commitments to their cause?

In Virginia, Virginia State and Norfolk State University are seemingly in good shape. Liberal cities in the northern region of the commonwealth and supportive advocates in places like Richmond, Hampton, and Norfolk will reliably call for stable funding and political partnership for the public institutions and Black colleges statewide. 

If history is any indicator, GOP actors and activists want to achieve two goals by way of helping out these schools and other Black institutions in similar scenarios. The first benefit of helping HBCUs is to blunt the impact of racially-charged policy in other areas of voter interest like Critical Race Theory banning in schools and voter redistricting and redlining. 

The second benefit is to chip away at and recruit away from the Democratic party an increasingly disenchanted bloc of young Black voters. Its members are enrolled or coming to HBCUs, angry at the inactivity of politics at large and the stalled action of Democrats on issues like student loan forgiveness, affordable healthcare, and police reform. 

And they are willing to listen to the other side. 

HBCU presidents and chancellors have always leaned into political agnosticism. Many may hold their noses about it, but at varying levels, they are willing to use photo opps, campus appearances, and political alliances to help fortify their institutions. 

But will HBCU students, alumni, and faculty hold the line?

It was not that long ago that HBCU executives could set their watches to stakeholders getting mad about glad-handing GOP enemies but doing little more than that. Now, in a world shaped by protests at Howard University over mold and trustee seats, they have genuine concerns that political gamesmanship may stir protests on or around campus. 

It didn’t start at HU. This goes back to HBCU presidential photo opps with Trump in the Oval Office. It traces down to Dillard University President Walter Kimbrough and Xavier University of Louisiana President C. Reynold Verret getting scraped for promoting covid vaccine access and awareness months before it became popular and necessary. 

It’s Tennessee State University President Glenda Baskin Glover being denounced and forced off of a private board of a corrections management company because of perceived racial dissonance in the role. 

It’s Elizabeth City State University Chancellor Karrie Dixon facing criticism for making public space on campus available to peacekeeping officers following the tragic death of a resident and a city teetering on the brink of civil unrest. 

Suppose the threat of protest continually looms over campuses and the obligations of leaders to do things that make moral, financial, or political sense. How can the necessary work of political appearances and alliances get done? If we can no longer rely upon our stakeholders simply being mad and going on about their business, who remains willing to stand in the middle of changing political power and cultural shifts to fight the power? 

Even in the fall and a full year ahead of the all-important mid-terms, it already feels like an endless summer for HBCU leaders.