Who Really Played HBCUs?

With the signing of President Trump’s HBCU Executive Order and in the days leading up to Howard University’s 150th birthday, the debate around the importance and relevance of HBCUs has dominated national political discourse like never before. A controversy surrounding Talladega College marching band’s participation in the White House inaugural parade led to raising more than $645000, a considerable amount of money for a small liberal arts college with a $10 million endowment.
Donald Trump’s recent outreach to the HBCU community has stirred the passions of many HBCU students, alumni and boosters, who have expressed skepticism and outright outrage around the president’s efforts to support HBCUs. Even his Oval Office invitation to more than 80 HBCU presidents has been met with derision, with reports more focused on Kellyanne Conway’s posture on a couch than the historic nature of the presence of so many African Americans in the nation’s highest office at the same time.
Recently fired Morehouse College President Dr. John Wilson released a press release, chiding the Trump administration’s “troubling beginning” with HBCUs and criticizing the shift of the White House HBCU Initiative from the Department of Education to the White House as merely “symbolic.” According to reports, Wilson was “disappointed” in the meeting and TheRoot.com went even further, titling an article highlighting Wilson’s remarks with the black colloquialism ‘Morehouse President: We Got Played.”
President Obama was a great president in spite of extraordinary resistance to his initiatives, but there were some areas of his presidency that came up short in terms of black expectations. The HBCU policy arena is such an area and Dr. Wilson was, and apparently remains, an active character in the madness.
What Dr. Wilson didn’t share in his press release and accompanying news reports is that he isn’t just an impartial HBCU president, but instead, an Obama administration insider with his own disappointing track record around HBCUs. Before his embattled tenure at Morehouse College, he served as the Executive Director of the White House Initiative on HBCUs.
The Obama administration was a disaster as it relates to black colleges, but this reality seems to thrive in the short memories of some supporters. John Wilson’s troubled tenure, along with President Obama’s bizarre relationship with HBCUs, shows that if indeed the Trump administration wanted to “play” HBCUs, it has plenty of lessons to learn from the Obama administration.
Quite simply, Dr. Wilson and company are in no position to criticize the Trump administration with their own dubious track record of vicious games played with and within the HBCU community.
Dr. Wilson’s tenure as Executive Director of the White House Initiative on HBCUs has been called into question as well. According to the HBCU Digest, “Whistleblowers from the office’s presidential board of advisers, as well as some office staff, called attention to what they believed was conduct outside of the best interest of HBCUs by then-executive director John Wilson.”
“Letters were written to Undersecretary of Education Martha Kanter detailing what was described as “unprofessional behavior.” They spoke for over half of the advising board, saying that they all stood together in their belief that Wilson was not acting in the best interest of the institutions, but rather, was working only to further his own agenda.”
“Sources within the board of advisers contended that Wilson ignored the chain of authority, did not produce the reports required by the executive board and treated employees unfairly. Several office employees admitted that they had filed EEOC reports detailing mistreatment by Wilson.”
Obama’s HBCU Executive Order mandated the publication of an annual report detailing the government’s role with HBCUs. According to the office’s website, annually required federal HBCU reports have not yet been published for data 2014, 2015, and 2016. In fact, Dr. Wilson never published the required HBCU reports while serving as Executive Director from 2009 to 2012.
The first report was submitted in September of 2013 for the 2008 fiscal year.
The available reports don’t paint a pretty picture.  In the 2010 report, the HBCU Board of Advisors recommended that the White House set an aspirational goal for each department and/or agency that no less than 5 percent of all funds awarded to IHEs go to HBCUs.  According to the most recently available HBCU report, the percentage of IHE federal funding awarded funds awarded to HBCUs declined from 3.1% in 2007 to 2.8% in 2013.
The same report showed that the percentage of IHE federal funding awarded to HBCUs, excluding student aid, stayed relatively flat, barely changing from 3.6% in 2007 to 3.7% in 2013.  The data shows there were dramatic dips in the HBCU share of federal funding during the height of the Great Recession, declining by more than 13% in 2009 and 2010.
After the resignation of Dr. Wilson as the office’s head, heads of HBCU advocacy organizations were reduced to sending a letter begging the President to appoint a permanent Executive Director to the office.
“The appointment of yet another interim executive director does not bode well for the HBCU community, whose challenges are many, immediate, and likely to have lasting adverse impacts,” according to a letter sent to President Obama which reportedly came from the heads of the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education (NAFEO) and Thurgood Marshall College Fund (TMCF), the membership associations for the nation’s 105 Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and 90 Predominantly Black Institutions, as reported by Diverse Education.
During this same time, HBCU Advisory Board Chair and Hampton University President Dr. William Harvey told attendees at the annual NAFEO conference in April 2013 that HBCUs are in “the worst situation I’ve seen in 35 years.” Then Stillman College President Ernest McNealey, said to Politic365.com in April 2013 that the situation regarding PLUS loans was a “disaster for HBCUs” and the largest exodus of HBCU students from campuses in at least 45 years.
That shouldn’t surprise anyone considering the shabby treatment that President Obama exhibited towards black colleges.
Under the Obama administration, the White House Initiative was an afterthought. Thurgood Marshall College Fund head Johnny Taylor made it plain, recently stating, “You know, at the end of the day where you live matters in so many ways, right? When we were in the Department of Education, this office, it was three levels down. It didn’t even report to the secretary of education. This reality speaks volumes about what the former administration and former administrations thought about HBCUs.”
For years, HBCUs wanted a direct report to the White House. “One of the things we’d like to see is for the White House Initiative on HBCUs to have a direct report to the president.” Morgan State President Emeritus Earl Richardson stated.
It took President Trump 40 days to sign an HBCU Executive Order that brought the HBCU Initiative to the White House for the first time in history, it took President Obama 402 days to sign an HBCU Executive Order that was virtually identical to other HBCU Executive Orders.
Ta-Nehisi Coates called President Obama the “scold of Black America” for telling Morehouse College graduates at their commencement that “”there’s no longer room for any excuses”. President Obama criticized HBCUs at a meeting with the Congressional Black Caucus, with Congressman and prominent Clark Atlanta University alumnus Hank Johnson calling the president “callous” and Congresswoman Fudge saying that the President thought that black colleges were failing their students.
As late as January of 2016, Dillard President Dr. Walter Kimbrough, who recently said there was “very little listening” at the Trump White House meeting, stated that “the people around [Obama], I don’t think they value historically black colleges.”
In 2011, the Obama administration submitted a 2012 budget that called for ending a three-year experiment that allows students to qualify for two Pell Grants in a calendar year, to allow them to attend college year-round, and for eliminating the subsidy in which the government pays the interest on student loans for graduate students while they are in school. With a recent study from the Education Trust noting that roughly half of the nation’s 105 HBCUs have a freshman class where three-quarters of the students are from low-income backgrounds, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist that these cuts negatively impacted HBCUs.
Dr. Harvey, long-serving Chair of the Obama’s own HBCU Advisory Board, had even more damning criticism of the HBCU track record at the twilight of the Obama administration: “I have to say that one of my biggest concerns or regrets is that we are not being used as the advisory board we are supposed to be. All this expertise — more than 150 years at the helm of HBCUs, decades as the heads of major philanthropic organizations, expertise in business, in fundraising and in public relations, connections on Wall Street, in the Ivy League and everywhere else. Yet, we are not consulted when it comes to policy changes and decisions impacting — in a major way — the institutions on whose behalf we are to advocate.”
He continued: “While we don’t know a lot, because a lot is not shared, we do know that federal support for HBCUs is showing an alarming downward trend. Over the last several years, all of the major Title IV programs had modifications and adjustments which make it much harder for HBCUs to get funding. We all know of the Parent PLUS debacle. These loans to our students are down. Pell grants to students at HBCUs are down. Direct loans to our students are down. Graduate subsidies have been eliminated. In addition to student support, overall support to Black colleges is down.”
Former White House HBCU Initiative head, career Education Department official, and noted HBCU advocate Dr. Leonard Haynes said in an interview at the conclusion of his 40-year distinguished track record of supporting HBCUs, ‘Unfortunately, the current administrative approach to helping HBCUs has been wanting and a near disaster. HBCUs, in terms of overall support from the federal government, have gone backward, not forward.’
The US Department of Education reported that 28,000 students attending HBCUs were denied Parent PLUS loans in the fall of 2012 as a result of the tighter rules. Black colleges even threatened to sue the Obama administration as a result of the Parent Plus loan debacle.
In a Tampa Bay Times editorial written by Bill Maxwell, a group of former HBCU presidents and chancellors wrote a letter to Obama upbraiding him for his “roller coaster” approach to funding for HBCUs. “Our concern,” they wrote, “is that you could leave office without having effected the necessary change in how the state and federal governments view, promote, support and fund HBCUs. That would be, in our opinion, a tragedy of untold proportion.”
Trump critics highlight that the HBCU Executive Order didn’t have any money attached to it. That’s true. Neither did President Obama’s Executive Order. And I don’t remember HBCU presidents criticizing President Obama for not including aspirational goals.
The criticism, fortunately, has been answered by HBCU alumna and presidential adviser Omarosa Manigault.
“We understand what an executive order is and then we understand what a legislative process is and we understand what budget is. We understand that the executive order starts the action but there are so many different steps in terms of defining programming… I submit to you that many of those detractors come from that group of people who truly could have done better by our students — and our students deserve better.”
The truth is never out of season and Omorosa took folks to the altar of truth with her statement.
The jury is still out for President Trump and his commitment to HBCUs.  I’m extremely concerned by Secretary Betsey DeVos and her asinine comments about school choice and HBCUs.  Steve Bannon’s white supremacist views are retrograde and troubling.
But while many are questioning the motivations of Trump in supporting HBCUs, we should also question why the Obama administration didn’t do more. We cannot gloss over the fact President Trump did in 40 days what took President Obama more than 400 days to accomplish for HBCUs. President Obama set a low bar for his successor to reach, financially and symbolically. And now we’re upset that he is in the process of clearing it with ease.
I disagree with virtually everything that President Trump has proposed. However, if he is sincere in wanting to assist HBCUs, as his Executive Order suggests, we should work with him on this endeavor. Esteemed Congressman and Congressional Black Caucus Founder William Clay’s famous admonition is worth repeating: “Black people have no permanent friends, no permanent enemies, but permanent interests.”
If it turns out that Trump is playing us, then we should at least acknowledge the blueprint was expertly designed and executed by the Obama administration.
Updated Contextual Information
Readers have shared a document that states the Obama administration invested $4 billion in HBCUs over seven years. However, just throwing out a number isn’t particularly useful.  Without context it is pretty meaningless. The lay person hears $4 billion over 8 years and is impressed. What they don’t know is that $4 billion over eight years to 105 institutions, averages to about $4,761,904 per year per institution in investment by the federal government, considerably less impressive.
Comparing the funding to other schools is also telling.  For example, the University of Wisconsin-Madison received more money just in federally funded R&D grants during the Obama administration than the entire ballyhooed total Obama $4 billion investment in 105 HBCUs.
The real metrics are if HBCU investment went up from the previous administration, if the money allocated consisted of grants or loans to students, and the total amount of money allocated to all colleges and the HBCU percentage. The last point is important and is why Obama’s HBCU Advisory Board advocated for it and why the UNCF, TMCF, and NAFEO pushed to have it included in Trump’s HBCU Executive Order.  If you just give a number, it doesn’t give the appropriate context.