Trump Statement Worries HBCUs

by Chris Tognotti
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On Friday, buried near the end of an official statement on signing of the Consolidated Appropriations Act, President Donald Trump sent a message that reportedly stunned many in the Department of Education. Namely, Trump said funding for historically black colleges might be unconstitutional, imperiling the relationship between the government and some of the country's longest-standing historically black institutions of higher learning.

This isn't the first time the community of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) has been rankled by the Trump administration. Back in March, representatives from America's HBCUs hoped that a White House meeting with Trump would pave the way for an increase in federal funding, only to learn when the president's proposed budget was released that he wanted to cut their funding by more than $80 million.

What was included in Trump's Friday statement, however, is far more grave and worrying for HBCUs and their advocates. Referring to federal funding for HBCUs as a distribution of "benefits on the basis of race, ethnicity, and gender," it suggested that such funding might be in violation of the U.S. Constitution.

My Administration shall treat provisions that allocate benefits on the basis of race, ethnicity, and gender ... in a manner consistent with the requirement to afford equal protection of the laws under the Due Process Clause of the Constitution's Fifth Amendment.

One of the provisions the statement referenced is the "Historically Black College and University Capital Financing Program Account."

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According to Politico, a White House spokesperson downplayed the importance of this rather ominous line, although they didn't deny that it reflected a judgment about provisions that could "conflict with his constitutional authority and duties."

President Trump has identified certain provisions in the appropriations bill that could, in some circumstances, conflict with his constitutional authority and duties. The brief, routine signing statement simply indicates that the President will interpret those provisions consistent with the Constitution.

The spokesperson also lauded the "big wins" in the spending bill the statement referred to, including hikes to military spending and border security. But for HBCUs and the students and communities they serve, those "big wins" are little more than cold comfort.

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Marybeth Gasman, a University of Pennsylvania professor, told The Washington Post on Saturday that she wishes Trump didn't even know what HBCUs are.

I would rather have Trump do nothing with HBCUs — not even know they exist. He will see them as a handout. He doesn’t understand that he was given a leg up by his rich father. He doesn’t see that other people need help from programs because of past discrimination and inequity.

As it stands now, America's HBCUs reportedly draw a combined $577 million in federal funds. Needless to say, that funding disappearing would punch a gaping budgetary hole in the fiscal health of these institutions. And while there's no guarantee that will happen just yet, the fact that the groundwork is even being laid is rightly being treated as serious cause for concern.