Which way on black col­leges?

Trump had sig­naled a new fo­cus on the schools, but of­fi­cials see lit­tle fol­low-up.

Los Angeles Times - - THE NATION - By Lau­ren Rosen­blatt lau­ren.rosen­blatt@la­times.com Twit­ter: @LRosen­blatt_

WASHINGTON — Fol­low­ing in the foot­steps of ev­ery pres­i­dent since Jimmy Carter, Pres­i­dent Trump signed an ex­ec­u­tive or­der in Fe­bru­ary pledg­ing his com­mit­ment to his­tor­i­cally black col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties.

But Trump, who won only a sliver of black vot­ers last fall, took it a step fur­ther, invit­ing dozens of lead­ers from th­ese in­sti­tu­tions into the Oval Of­fice for a meet­ing that raised hopes he may bring more fed­eral at­ten­tion — and fund­ing — to their schools.

More than six months later, with the White House’s an­nual con­fer­ence for his­tor­i­cally black col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties, or HBCUs, sched­uled for Mon­day, some ad­min­is­tra­tors and law­mak­ers are ques­tion­ing Trump’s com­mit­ment, say­ing that first meet­ing ap­pears to have been lit­tle more than a pub­lic­ity stunt.

“There’s no real ef­fort that we see,” said Rep. Ben­nie Thomp­son (D-Miss.), a mem­ber of the Con­gres­sional Black Cau­cus. “His meet­ing with HBCU pres­i­dents, for the most part, was a photo op that did not gen­er­ate any sub­stan­tive leg­is­la­tion or fi­nan­cial ben­e­fits to those col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties.”

Trump has yet to as­sign an ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor to lead the White House Ini­tia­tive on His­tor­i­cally Black Col­leges and Uni­ver­si­ties — a po­si­tion that is gen­er­ally filled by the end of the sum­mer. Nor has he ap­pointed a sin­gle mem­ber to the Pres­i­dent’s Board of Ad­vi­sors on HBCUs.

In May he ques­tioned the con­sti­tu­tion­al­ity of a fed­eral con­struc­tion fi­nanc­ing pro­gram that serves black cam­puses and pro­posed cut­ting fed­eral fi­nan­cial aid pro­grams, in­clud­ing Pell Grants, and work study op­por­tu­ni­ties, which many mi­nor­ity stu­dents rely on.

The White House later walked back the sug­ges­tion that the fi­nanc­ing pro­gram may be il­le­gal be­cause it tar­gets only black schools, and Trump said he still has “un­wa­ver­ing sup­port” for mostly black in­sti­tu­tions.

But be­cause of what they see as a lack of progress, some mem­bers of the Con­gres­sional Black Cau­cus, the Con­gres­sional HBCU Cau­cus and other ad­vo­cates for the schools have called for Mon­day’s con­fer­ence to be de­layed.

Their con­cerns were el­e­vated af­ter Trump de­fended pro­test­ers at a white su­prem­a­cist rally in Char­lottesville, Va. — which ended in the death of a counter-pro­tester.

“It’s un­clear what the pres­i­dent’s pri­or­i­ties are,” said Alvin Schexnider, former ex­ec­u­tive vice pres­i­dent at Norfolk State Univer­sity and au­thor of “Sav­ing Black Col­leges.” “I think that’s the real source of anx­i­ety: that peo­ple just don’t know what’s go­ing to hap­pen, if any­thing.”

Ear­lier this month, the White House qui­etly an­nounced it would scale back the con­fer­ence from a three­day event at an Alexan­dria, Va., ho­tel to a one-day gath­er­ing at the White House, ac­cord­ing to Omarosa Mani­gault-New­man, di­rec­tor of com­mu­ni­ca­tions for the White House Of­fice of Public Li­ai­son, who has known Trump since ap­pear­ing as a con­tes­tant on his TV show, “The Ap­pren­tice.”

The re­vised con­fer­ence will fea­ture smaller meet­ings to al­low “stu­dents and lead­ers to share their per­spec­tives on the op­por­tu­ni­ties and chal­lenges fac­ing the HBCU com­mu­nity,” ac­cord­ing to a state­ment from the White House Ini­tia­tive on HBCUs.

“Pres­i­dent Trump’s com­mit­ment to the HBCU com­mu­nity re­mains strong and un­wa­ver­ing,” Mani­gault New­man said. “Regis­tra­tion re­mains at ca­pac­ity, and we are look­ing for­ward to wel­com­ing HBCU pres­i­dents, stu­dents and guests.”

She added that an an­nounce­ment about the ap­point­ment of an ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor to lead the White House ini­tia­tive is ex­pected at the con­fer­ence.

But Rep. Alma Adams (D-N.C.), co-chair of the Con­gres­sional HBCU Cau­cus, said Trump is tak­ing too long to keep his prom­ises.

“School has started, so to me he has not acted swiftly enough, and I think he’s drag­ging his feet,” Adams said.

In June, the Con­gres­sional Black Cau­cus de­clined a meet­ing with Trump af­ter the ad­min­is­tra­tion did not re­spond to a 130page doc­u­ment out­lin­ing what the fed­eral gov­ern­ment could do to help black fam­i­lies and stu­dents.

Even with the missed dead­lines and slow ac­tion, Ken­tucky State Univer­sity Pres­i­dent M. Christo­pher Brown II said he was look­ing for­ward to the con­fer­ence, which he said would pro­vide an­other chance for the pres­i­dent to show he is pay­ing at­ten­tion.

“I think we re­ally need to have a clear plat­form and agenda,” he said. “If the pres­i­dent calls a meet­ing, I will be there.”

The Thur­good Mar­shall Col­lege Fund, one of the groups that had orig­i­nally ad­vo­cated for post­pone­ment of the con­fer­ence, was hope­ful the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s de­ci­sion to mod­ify the event showed it was “still lis­ten­ing to the com­mu­nity and is se­ri­ous about find­ing so­lu­tions,” ac­cord­ing to a state­ment.

Rep. Bradley Byrne (R-Ala.), co-chair of the Con­gres­sional HBCU Cau­cus with Adams, said he hoped the con­fer­ence would help align the pri­or­i­ties of the cau­cus with those of the White House.

Un­like some of his fel­low cau­cus mem­bers, Byrne de­fended Trump.

“We’re go­ing to have a White House that’s work­ing with us,” he said. “I’ve been very pleased at the open­ness of the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion to a num­ber of ini­tia­tives. Now we need to fol­low through.”

For many ad­vo­cates, that means more fed­eral fund­ing for HBCUs and rolling back some of the cuts Trump pro­posed in his bud­get. The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion notes that it did not mod­ify the fund­ing set aside for HBCUs in the bud­get, but ad­vo­cates say the cur­rent level of fund­ing is not enough for a group of schools that his­tor­i­cally re­ceived only a small por­tion of fed­eral dol­lars and a pop­u­la­tion of stu­dents that rely heav­ily on fed­eral aid to fi­nance their ed­u­ca­tion.

A 2011 De­part­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion study found about 52% of black un­der­grad­u­ate full-time stu­dents re­ceived need-based grants or schol­ar­ships, com­pared with 30% of white un­der­grad­u­ate full­time stu­dents.

Ad­vo­cates have been con­sis­tently fight­ing for more fund­ing. They had lim­ited suc­cess un­der Pres­i­dent Obama, who orig­i­nally pro­posed sev­eral pro­grams to help black stu­dents and col­leges, but wasn’t able to se­cure a long-term in­crease in fund­ing.

“We need the fed­eral gov­ern­ment to pay some at­ten­tion to th­ese schools,” Adams said. “It is the pres­i­dent who can pro­vide lead­er­ship from the top to show the in­ter­est that he has and en­cour­age our lead­ers to fol­low suit.”

AUDE GUERRUCCI Pool Photo

SOME SAY Pres­i­dent Trump’s Fe­bru­ary meet­ing with lead­ers of his­tor­i­cally black col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties amounted to a photo op.

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