On Monday, Donald Trump invited leaders from Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) to the White House for a "listening session," a meeting that was intended to raise solutions for ongoing concerns such as federal funding and educational support for those school. The attendees, presidents and key figures from more than 100 institutions, were promised an hour-long meeting with the President but instead received only received 15 minutes before being escorted to the Oval Office for a now-viral yet questionable picture.
On Tuesday, President Trump signed an executive order pledging to support HBCUs, which, according to the text released Wednesday, promised to increase the private sector role in HBCUs and move the HBCU initiative to the Executive Office of the President. The order also promised to strengthen the relationship between the federal government and HBCUs while ensuring students have an equitable opportunity to participate in federal programs. One thing the order didn't do was spell out how much money will be given to HBCUs. HBCU leaders asked for a $25 billion federal investment but the order did not specify if and how much they would receive.
The HBCU presidents weren't the only ones who wanted more from this order than what it provided. Democratic House Leader Nancy Pelosi called it "more empty symbolism." The founder and co-chair of the Congressional Bipartisan HBCU Caucus, Rep. Alma Adams (D-N.C.) released a statement saying: "This order is a first step towards supporting our HBCUs but there is greater work to be done. Our schools need a real commitment and investment from this administration."
When it all boils down to it, the visit provided a great photo opportunity for President Trump and a sheet of paper for HBCUs. The executive order fell short on giving HBCU presidents what they needed, a commitment to a greater financial investment.
The questionable photo now makes sense. I would find it rather difficult to genuinely smile if I were promised lobster and served under-cooked fish sticks, and in essence, that's exactly what this administration did during this convening. The photo, and Kellyanne Conway's posture in it, encapsulate the entire administration's attitude on HBCUs. With her feet tucked on the couch, Conway scrolls through her phone ignoring the guests in the room. No respect for a respectable legacy.
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos sealed the deal with her incomplete history lesson. She released a statement on HBCUs, calling them "pioneers ... [of] school choice." Her statement celebrated legal segregation and proved that she had no understanding of the history of HBCUs. Yet, here these prestigious HBCU leaders were, standing politely amongst the uninformed. They were deprived of time, disrespected by disposition, and still nowhere closer to getting $25 billion.
As an HBCU graduate, I can easily find it offensive to know we were used as a prop to make President Trump seem more appealing. His executive order, though, is a step in the right direction. However, I will be offended and disappointed if HBCUs return to business as usual and don't fight for the investment we rightfully deserve.
DeVos was right. We are pioneers. We are pioneers of making something out of nothing.
DeVos may not know that the first HBCU was founded 180 years ago. She may also find it hard to believe that despite the desire to learn, Jim Crow laws prevented black students from having a choice in the matter. The legal segregation she so willfully praised robbed us of any opportunity to be more than who they thought we should be.
Lucky for us, church basements and backrooms were turned into our learning playground. We gave birth to a system that worked for us, created by us. HBCUs created a new narrative, it introduced us to who we could be. So, DeVos was right. We are pioneers. We are pioneers of making something out of nothing.
What we did to create HBCUs was nothing short of impossible. As we continue to grow our legacy, it takes money to sustain it. I understand the President's aim is to give HBCUs more clout with the government by being handled directly by the White House, but coins, not clout is what we need.
HBCU students have a bigger loan burden than that of their counterparts. Despite President Obama's increased funding to HBCUs, his administration did place stricter requirements on the Parent Plus Loan and make changes to the Pell Grant. Both of these changes created loan problems for HBCU students forcing them to drop out or transfer to local community colleges.
The $25 billion isn't just needed to help cover the growing unmet need, but it's also needed to address the years of underfunding HBCUs. It's no secret that for decades HBCUs have been treated separate and unequal, on both a federal and state level. States like Maryland are being sued for such discriminatory practices that have become a normal course of business for government spending.
In order to get fair treatment and adequate funding, we have one choice in the matter and that's to fight. Gone are the days where we can accept ambiguous promises and under-cooked fish sticks while our counterparts dine on lobster. My alma mater charged me to "Think, Work, and Serve"; I charge other HBCUs to do the same. We must think about how we have no other choice but to work, and force this administration to serve us.
Trump might end up proving me wrong, but if he doesn't, don't let us find you seated like Kellyanne when it's time for the revolution to come.