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Trump's on-again, off-again relationship with Historically Black Colleges and Universities

You could get whiplash tracking whether or not President Donald Trump supports Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

On Friday, Trump fueled the "does-he-or-doesn't-he" debate when he raised doubts about the legality of  federal funding that helps with construction and facilities upkeep at HBCUs. In response to fallout from his statement, Trump turned around two days later and affirmed his strong belief in HBCUs.

Following his signing a $1.1 trillion spending bill, Trump suggested the $20 million Congress appropriated for the longstanding Historically Black College and University Capital Financing Program may be unconstitutional because the program allocates “benefits on the basis of race, ethnicity, and gender.”

His comment spurred immediate concern, including calls for clarification and reminders that HBCUs are open to all students.

"Since their founding, HBCUs have been open to, welcoming and supportive of persons from all races, ethnicities, religions, and both genders except for the gender-specific HBCUs. HBCUs enroll roughly 30 percent of non-African American students. Their faculty is more than 40 percent non-African American. Today 5 HBCUs are more than 50 percent non-African American. At least one is majority Hispanic-serving. One is being shepherded by a white female president," said Lezli Baskerville, president of the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education.

The unease over his statement led to an addendum from Trump reaffirming his “unwavering support” for HBCUs. To make the point even clearer,  Education Secretary Betsy DeVos then issued a statement as well. (DeVos had her own misstep when she described HBCUs as pioneers in school choice, ignoring the historic necessity for the schools due to segregation.)

She said:

I am a strong supporter of Historically Black Colleges and Universities and the critical role they play in communities and in our higher education system. I am happy to see the president reaffirmed this administration’s support for HCBUs. I will continue to be an advocate for them and for programs that make higher education more accessible to all students.

In February, Trump provoked skepticism in the black higher education community after a much ballyhooed meeting with HBCU presidents that some felt amounted to a White House photo-op. During a meeting the White House called a "listening session," Trump assured the 70  presidents he would “do more for HBCUs than any other president has done before.”

By "doing more," college leaders hoped Trump meant increased funding through new or expanded assistance programs, but he apparently didn't.

“Instead of the long-awaited executive order containing or signaling any of those outcomes, the key change is a symbolic shift of the White House HBCU Initiative from the Department of Education to the White House.  It is not possible to measure the impact of this gesture anytime soon, if ever,” said meeting attendee and former president of Morehouse College, John Silvanus Wilson Jr.

In a joint statement this week, Louisiana Congressman Cedric Richmond, the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, and Michigan Congressman John Conyers, Jr., addressed Trump’s attempt to walk back his Friday HBCU comments.

Based on President Trump’s record on HBCUs, we think it’s safe to say that he meant what he said on Friday and that last night’s statement, much like the HBCU executive order, meeting, and photo, are just PR. He held a meeting with more than 70 HBCU presidents in February and then said after the meeting that they didn’t ask him for anything even though they did. He signed an executive order that moves the HBCU initiative into the White House but does little else…Sadly and shamefully, HBCUs, including the schools that President Trump met with, are left to wonder whether he wants to help or hurt them.



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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.