President Donald Trump told leaders of historically black colleges and universities Tuesday of his “fierce dedication to strengthening HBCUs.” He insisted his “administration’s commitment is bigger and better and stronger than any previous administration by far.”
“This nation owes a profound debt of gratitude to its HBCUs,” he said in a speech to more than 40 representatives from HBCUs across the country gathered in Washington for the White House’s Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
Story Continued Below
His remarks were greeted warmly by an audience that nevertheless took pains afterwards to separate themselves from the other portion of the president’s remarks to them — Trump’s campaign-like pitch touting himself to African-Americans.
Pointing to what he said were record-low unemployment and poverty rates for African Americans, Trump at one point asked who on a presidential debate stage “is going to beat these numbers?”
“I think it’s important to stay focused on the money and not on the message,” said Austin Lane, president of Texas Southern University, which will host Thursday’s Democratic presidential debate. “We’re here to find out, most importantly, if there’s money to access, where is it and how do we get it.”
A number of HBCU students and community members have been critical of their leaders for working with the Trump administration, saying they’re getting too close to a presidency that has continually insulted the black community. HBCU leaders defend their decision to maintain the relationship, saying working with the administration is key to securing the federal funding necessary to keep their universities running.
“With every administration we pledge to work well,” said Katara Williams, chief of staff for the Southern University system, which pointed to the Trump administration’s role in securing loan forgiveness for the more than $300 million in aid it received alongside other Louisiana HBCUs in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. “Any advancement that we can get in terms of providing additional access through scholarships or grants…we’re very grateful.”
In the administration’s earliest days, Trump said he would make HBCUs a “top priority.” But the relationship has been inconsistent. Little more than one month into office, he moved the White House Initiative on HBCUs from the Department of Education to the White House — something black leaders called for under the Obama administration.
Proponents of the move saw it as a good-faith decision by Trump and a sign that he was open to both listening to their leaders and delivering results. More than half of the administrative offices for the initiative, however, remain in the Department of Education.
Like most university leaders, HBCU presidents have courted presidential administrations regardless of their political leanings. On average, historically black institutions rely on the federal government for half of their total annual revenue to operate.
That’s left HBCU leaders in a bind when it comes to their relationship with Trump. They’re leery of alienating the administration even as the president maintains an approval rating among African-Americans of just 9 percent, according to the most recent CNN/SRSS poll.
Aware of the potentially negative optics of appearing too close to the president and his administration, one HBCU president who requested anonymity told POLITICO that while HBCU leaders actively attended the week’s business meetings, they did not participate in a public photo opportunity.
Most sought to keep the focus on the challenges facing their institutions — not on the president’s rhetoric.
“This conference is separate from the president’s vision,” said Anthony Jenkins, president of West Virginia State University, who said he did not attend Trump’s remarks due to a scheduling conflict. The president’s support, he continued, “Is one part of a piece of pie. It is one sliver of what needs to be done. It’s going to take a comprehensive, joint effort.”