HBCU DIGEST: HBCU presidents get political on Biden budget fight

LISTEN: Dillard University President Dr. Walter Kimbrough on Participating  in COVID Study - American Urban Radio Networks

The Biden Administration issued a press release over the weekend to correct ‘misinformation’ in coverage of HBCU allocations in Congress’ drafted reconciliation bill.

In order to promote our shared prosperity and advance equity for all Americans, the Biden-Harris Administration has prioritized and delivered historic levels of investment in and support for HCBUs. Those actions include:

  • American Rescue Plan. The American Rescue Plan provided over $4 billion in relief funding to HBCUs, including approximately $1.6 billion in debt relief to 45 HBCUs (13 public institutions and 32 private institutions) earlier this year.

  • FY 21 Grant Funding. In FY21, the Department of Education awarded a total of $1 billion to build the capacity of institutions that serve large numbers of students of color and low-income students. $500 million of this funding went directly to HBCUs.

  • FY 22 Budget Request. The President’s FY22 budget requests a total of $887 million for HBCU-specific funding in Higher Education Act (HEA) Title III funds—an increase of $247 million over last year’s level. This would triple the mandatory Title III funding at the Department of Education— for a total of $252 million. Title III mandatory funds provide formula grants to all HBCUs to invest in capacity-building initiatives and student success programs. The President’s budget request includes funding for research opportunities at HBCUs, labs, IT infrastructure, workforce development programs in STEM, and DOJ funding for Violence Against Women Act programs at HBCUs, among other priorities.

  • Teacher Quality Funding. Through the FY22 budget request and the Build Back Better plan, President Biden has proposed $60 million for the Augustus Hawkins Centers of Excellence Program to support teacher preparation programs at HBCUs and minority-serving institutions (MSIs).

The release follows a growing number of HBCU presidents wading further into political waters over the nuances of legislation. Walter Kimbrough of Dillard University and Rick Gallot of Grambling State University, in particular, have found plenty of real estate between critics of the administration and the Biden HBCU agenda.

Last week, Kimbrough delivered a lengthy Twitter thread to debunk criticism of the administration on to lay blame for the same on misinterpretations of record funding under former president Donald Trump.

There are some legitimate points in Kimbrough’s argument, but some of them miss the invaluable context. First, decrying the Trump 2021 budget that benefited HBCUs under his signature but for which he didn’t promote is a political misnomer. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell didn’t promote an increase in the national debt ceiling, and in fact, criticized it in real-time while acquiescing and allowing the actual increase.

What politicians say and what they do are often two very different things to achieve very different objectives.

Second, a growing list of high-profile Black Democrats on Capitol Hill is publicly rallying against Kimbrough’s ‘nothing to see here’ messaging. They are calling hearings where other HBCU presidents are warning against the impact of budget shortfalls for HBCUs.

During her testimony, Glover outlined three specific areas that remain enduring challenges for HBCUs, including Tennessee State University — infrastructure and deferred maintenance, technology, and new academic programs and research.

“HBCUs remain at the frontline of educating students who need access to the transformative power of higher education despite discriminatory funding,” Glover said.

“We often ask the question, why do we still need HBCUs?” Glover said. “The question should be, how do these colleges and universities have so little and produce so much? And how can there be models be used by other institutions to advance our great country.”

Second, criticizing budget proposals in 2021 and 2022 is an interesting take, given that Democrats controlled the House in 2021 and now control the House and Senate leading into 2022, where they may lose control of both, according to New York Times columnist and Grambling State alumnus Charles Blow.

Black voters continue to be Biden’s strongest supporters on many of these metrics, but even their support seems disturbingly soft.

Maybe the Democrats will pass a massive spending bill and tout it well, and people will forget their disappointment on other issues and revel in the mound of cash the Democrats plan to spend. Maybe. There is no doubt that this country desperately needs the investments Democrats want to make. In fact, it needs even more investment than the amount Democrats have proposed.

But even if they succeed in passing both the infrastructure framework and the social spending bill, those investments may come too late to discharge growing dissatisfaction. An unpopular president with slipping approval numbers is an injured leader with little political capital to burn.

Gallot, a career lawmaker prior to becoming president of his alma mater, recently attempted to take a more moderate approach than the King of HBCU Twitter.

The funding change for HBCUs and MSIs comes amidst Democratic infighting over the $3.5 trillion bill. Disbursement of the $2 billion, which is meant for educational programs and infrastructure, could be changed from direct allocations to competitive grant funding under the bill’s new revisions, according to the AP. 

Gallot said direct allocations of funding would help even the playing field for HBCUs and help make budgeting the extra funds more predictable. On the other hand, if the funding is to be allocated through competitive grants, this would only delay the awarding of funds due to the need to create an application and decide the terms for disbursement. 

Gallot knows the difference between grant competition and direct allocation — he laid out the importance of funding in one of his first public statements when appointed as president of his alma mater in 2016. He also knows that competition for funds split among Grambling, the Southern University System, Dillard, and Xavier University of Louisiana only gets tougher when the split breaks down further among the state’s five two-year community colleges which are federally designated minority-serving institutions.

And that’s before you factor in the promises the Biden administration has committed to bolstering community colleges in addition to support for their MSI missions.

Like their representatives in Congress, HBCU presidents are choosing sides. But who will wind up looking better for the cost of doing battle?