On Monday, presidents of HBCUs across the nation stood in the oval office ahead of an executive order from Donald Trump. The optics of the gathering were jarring — but inviting leaders of America's black institutions to discuss the legislation for financial investment from the government has been a long standing tradition since the presidency of Jimmy Carter. Republicans don't garner large support in the black community, therefore conservative presidents especially have historically promised to prioritize investing in HBCUs in efforts to build favor.
It was suspected that the meeting was nothing more than a photo opportunity led by Trump, as school presidents noted that he and his administration did very little listening. When Trump signed the order on Tuesday, that sentiment was partly validated after it was revealed that it did not grant black colleges more financial resources. Instead, it transferred them from the Department of Education to the White House, a surprising if questionable move. In a statement, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos showcased her deficient knowledge of black institutions when she referred to the schools as "pioneers of school choice."
Before 1837, when the first HBCU Cheyney University was founded, black students did not very many options for higher education. Creating such institutions was not a move fueled by a need for alternatives — due to mainstream racists policies, it was the only option for black strivers. HBCUs have since remained the cornerstone of black excellence, cultivated global change agents, and served as sanctuaries for black thought and culture. And almost two centuries later, most HBCU's still don't enjoy the luxuries of large endowments and many students struggle to get and keep financial aid.
The FADER spoke to three HBCU students and graduates about Trump's executive order.
Allyson Carpenter, SGA President at Howard University
CARPENTER: Our president, Wayne A.I. Frederick has met with Betsy DeVos, he's met with Omarosa, he's met with various different officials and I think students are frustrated with the message that they thought was being sent. Someone decided to let their voice be heard in that way [by writing messages around campus.]
I want us to be honest about what we should be expecting from our HBCU leaders and also what we should be expecting from the Trump administration. That's why people are frustrated. As far as our legacy goes, I’m not sure if we have a history of administrators and university presidents standing up for what's right, but we definitely have a legacy of Howard students and Howard alum and our professors coming together to reassert what Howard stands on, reassert our core values and never allowing the people who lead us forget what it is we believe in.
We're very protective of our HBCUs and we all came here for a reason. We didn't just end up here; we came here for a reason. In my mind, HBCUs are supposed to be the protectors of marginalized people, that’s what I feel is our primary obligation. If HBCUs aren't here to stand up for people who can't speak up for themselves or who are being ignored, then it brings up this relevancy question. It's not about just educating black people, it's about creating a generation of leaders.The president is someone who in the last 30 days has deported thousands of undocumented immigrants, who has tried to ban Muslims from entering our country, who has rolled back protections from trans children.
You're in a room with someone who has done all these things and as a leader of an HBCU, the first thing you wanna talk about is more funding for our school? That's not what HBCUs are here for. We have to be here for those people who have been targeted for the last several weeks and we have to be a voice for them. That has to be priority number one. And it should never be any dollar amount that is able to move us off of our values. The outrage that we see is just students being really concerned that we're normalizing this behavior that the Trump administration is exhibiting.
One thing that it's not, is a favor. Congress is not doing us a favor, the White House is not doing us a favor by financing a college that takes some of the lowest income students across the country, who takes students who have been failed by failing public schools and educates them and has tremendous outcomes. Our graduates go on to become middle-class earners. They go on to contribute to their communities. It's not a handout. This is what successful education, an academic institution should look like — schools like Howard, Spelman, Morehouse, Hampton, and FAMU. That's what the goal of an American academic institution should be, and we're accomplishing it. We're doing our job, we're educating people. If our politics offends them, I don't think that that should have any, any implication on what our congressional appropriation is and we can be a little bit more bold about that. We didn't get here by compromising our values.
“The buck starts with us and we can’t expect a system that has never really been for us to continue to invest in the way that it needs to be invested in.”
Da'Shaun Harrison, junior at Morehouse College
HARRISON: When I first heard that Trump was signing an executive order for HBCUs, I immediately asked the question "What good can Trump do for HBCUs?" We've seen this man heavily invest himself in spewing racist, anti-black rhetoric time and time again — from his comments on the Central Park Five to much of what he ran on and condoned during his campaign. I felt uneasy, but prepared. Our president Dr. Wilson did attend. There wasn't a lot of pushback, but in a meeting with students he asked if he should go, was advised not to, and went anyway.
So many people see Trump separate from other presidents — even the ones that owned slaves and penned anti-black policies for mass incarceration because people don't necessarily understand that he is part of a much larger system. On a large scale, we have not began to complicate our analysis of the presidency. We have yet to really assess the validity, or lack thereof of that office. So, with Trump it is easy to see him as different because his fascism is very loud, whereas other presidents quietly implemented fascist policies through capitalism and all of the many [Black and brown] people that affects. We continuously play ourselves by expecting bigots to ever do anything in favor of the marginalized. There is nothing Donald Trump can do that'll benefit Black and brown folk because his ideologies don't include us. Whether it be domestic or foreign affairs, that office does not exist to protect Black people. So it's no surprise to me that they didn't get what they expected. It also does not surprise me that so many of our presidents went to the meeting. What disappoints me is that so many of them went with real expectations of a fascist doing something good for Black folk.
We have to be very real with ourselves and realize that many HBCUs have already compromised our agendas. Howard's president has actively met with Trump's administration and they have openly anti-Black folks sitting on their board of trustees. On Morehouse's Board of Trustees sits Dan Kathy, the C.E.O of Chick-fil-a and an openly racist, heterosexist, neo-colonizer and Trump supporter. Many HBCUs are funded and operated by rich cisgender heterosexual White men. So a meeting with Trump wasn't the start of our compromising, and it won't be the last. I think we need to divest from these folks who do not have our best interests at heart for starters.
Morehouse has been in the vanguard for social and political activism since its origin. But we see so much of Morehouse's impact on the world through its development of young, Black male change agents like Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Julian Bond, and through larger movements like the Atlanta Student Movement and modern-day movement, AUCShutItDown. Even as our administration opposes the work that we do — much like it did when students resisted in the 60's and beyond — what Morehouse represents is a place that is able to radicalize bodies of people to push for equity and social change.
Teddy Reeves, Hampton University graduate
REEVES: I’m not shocked. Every president since Jimmy Carter has signed an executive order on HBCUs so I knew it was coming. I was in anticipation of what it would actually look like so my initial thoughts were that this is standard. The question was, what would we actually get out of it for our schools?
People are thinking, “We don’t want our schools to come in cross hairs of this.” They’re afraid about what happens when we become a focal point. Do our schools run the risks of being shut down? Are we going to lose funding? It’s justified angst based upon past experiences. When you say you’re going to make HBCUs a prioritized focus, that also makes people nervous because we really haven’t had a president that has made HBCUs a focus and a priority. When you’re using that language and it comes from the person that said it has people question it’s meaning. This was not about “school choice,” this was the only place that we could go. With often times little access and some buildings crumbling, we still managed to produce doctors, lawyers, mathematicians, entertainers, and engineers. That comes back to protecting. Alumni have to do work and give back in the ways that we should. It also means protecting against policies that could harm our institutions as we currently know them.
It’s a greater question of education moving forward in this country. Many of the HBCUs are tuition driven and don’t have large endowments. They depend on a certain amount of students a year to fund facilities, fund programming and all of these different things. When numbers are beginning to dwindle, how do we diversify our income? Alumni giving has to increase at all our HBCUs. Corporate dollars depend on alumni giving and where our counterparts have increased theirs. The buck starts with us and we can’t expect a system that has never really been for us to continue to invest in the way that it needs to be invested in. It’s important that we take stock in our HBCUs. That’s partly because an investment was made in us as well. These schools give us a sense of pride and a sense of identity from the faculty, the staff who cleans the grounds, down to the lady in the lunch line that’s just concerned about your day.
I always have hope beyond what I can currently see. But, the order didn’t go as far as we needed it to go and there was no commitment to funding. When it comes down to it, it’s about those dollars and we also need legislation. I have a hope that is not built strictly on this move of shipping it out of the Department of Education, which I think is good step because it does put you in a pipeline but what I think what needs to happen is a strategic plan for increasing funding to HBCUs. It’s about commitment that is shown by the UNCF, giving HBCUs four our five million dollars at a time over ten years and increasing that funding. We need $14 to 15 billion and to really increase infrastructure. Let’s increase this Pell Grant that hinders a lot of students from finishing at HBCUs. We weren’t a priority over the last 8 years and there needs to be a push to be a priority to this country because HBCUs have done so much to history of the legacy and the bedrock of education for the United States.