Trump looms at Howard grad­u­a­tion


At Howard Univer­sity, a school known for its activism and com­mit­ment to so­cial jus­tice, Sen. Ka­mala D. Har­ris im­plored grad­u­ates at Satur­day’s com­mence­ment to fight the poli­cies of the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion.

“You are grad­u­at­ing into a very dif­fer­ent time than it was when you ar­rived a few short years ago,” said Har­ris (D-Calif.), a grad­u­ate of Howard. “We have a fight ahead. It’s a fight to de­ter­mine what kind of coun­try we will be. And it’s a fight to de­ter­mine whether we are willBethesda ing to stand up for our deep­est val­ues.”

Har­ris’s re­marks at the his­tor­i­cally black col­lege in the District tapped into the po­lit­i­cal dis­cord the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion has sown through its con­tro­ver­sial de­ci­sions, in­clud­ing di­rect­ing prosecutors to pur­sue manda­tory min­i­mum prison sen­tences, a hard-line ap­proach that has kept thou­sands of African Amer­i­can men be­hind bars. Her ad­dress also served as a bul­wark against the un­cer­tainty Pres­i­dent Trump cre­ated by his wa­ver­ing sup­port for his­tor­i­cally black col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties (HBCUs) like Howard.

“When voices at the high­est level of our gov­ern­ment seem confused about the sig­nif­i­cance and even the con­sti­tu­tion­al­ity of sup­port­ing HBCUs, I say look over here at Howard Univer­sity,” Har­ris said. “We need you. Our coun­try needs you. The world needs you.”

Dur­ing this year’s grad­u­a­tion sea­son, com­mence­ment speeches have been par­tic­u­larly po­lit­i­cal, mir­ror­ing stark di­vi­sions across the coun­try. Trump him­self spoke to grad­u­ates at Lib­erty Univer­sity, a Chris­tian school in Lynch­burg, Va., on Satur­day, telling them to “chal­lenge en­trenched in­ter­ests.”

HBCUs have had a fraught

with the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion. Univer­sity lead­ers headed to the White House ear­lier this year with the hope of in­creased fund­ing and aid for stu­dents, but many were dis­ap­pointed when the pres­i­dent’s bud­get did not in­clude any of their re­quests.

Ten­sions rose when Ed­u­ca­tion Sec­re­tary Betsy DeVos called his­tor­i­cally black in­sti­tu­tions “real pi­o­neers when it comes to school choice,” a state­ment that ad­vo­cates for HBCUs said ig­nored that the schools were a re­sponse to racist Jim Crow laws that en­forced seg­re­ga­tion. Although DeVos walked back her state­ment, the dam­age was ev­i­dent in the chilly re­cep­tion she re­ceived last week at Bethune-Cook­man Univer­sity in Florida, a his­tor­i­cally black school where some stu­dents booed dur­ing the sec­re­tary’s com­mence­ment speech.

Just days be­fore the in­ci­dent at Bethune-Cook­man, Trump alarmed lead­ers and ad­vo­cates of HBCUs by ques­tion­ing the con­sti­tu­tion­al­ity of low-cost con­struc­tion loans for re­pairs, ren­o­va­tions and new build­ings at such schools.

“HBCUs are try­ing to walk a del­i­cate line be­cause they re­al­ize that they have to be sup­port­ive of the ad­min­is­tra­tion to some ex­tent be­cause fund­ing comes from the Depart­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion,” said Robert T. Palmer, a pro­fes­sor of ed­u­ca­tion at Howard. “But Trump and his ad­min­is­tra­tion have very lit­tle un­der­stand­ing of his­tor­i­cally black uni­ver­si­ties, their value or im­por­tance.”

Cel­e­brat­ing its 150th an­niver­sary, Howard is widely con­sid­ered a flag­ship among the na­tion’s HBCUs. Its busi­ness and law schools are revered, and the univer­sity pro­duces among the high­est num­ber of African Amer­i­cans who earn doc­tor­ates. This year, Howard awarded 2,173 de­grees, in­clud­ing 318 mas­ter’s and 105 doc­tor­ates. More than 375 stu­dents re­ceived de­grees in law, medicine, phar­macy and den­tistry.

Satur­day’s com­mence­ment brings to a close a tu­mul­tuous year at Howard. A visit in Fe­bru­ary from DeVos sparked stu­dent protests, with some call­ing for the school to re­ject fed­eral fund­ing from the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion. Stu­dents were in­fu­ri­ated that Howard Pres­i­dent Wayne A.I. Fred­er­ick gave no no­tice of DeVos’s visit, and in their es­ti­ma­tion played down the sig­nif­i­cance of host­ing an ap­pointee of an ad­min­is­tra­tion that many see as hos­tile to African Amer­i­cans.

“You shouldn’t have peo­ple here who are a part of an ad­min­is­tra­tion that is against us,” said Imani Ruby Glenn, who earned a bach­e­lor of fine arts from Howard on Satur­day. “Do we want money that they re­ally don’t want to give us?”

In an in­ter­view on WAMU’s Ko­joNn am di show in late Fe­bru­ary, Fred­er­ick said it was imp or re­la­tion­ship tant for schools to in­ter­act with peo­ple with whom they dis­agree, as well as those who share their val­ues. He said he would wel­come a time when Howard is no longer re­liant on fed­eral ap­pro­pri­a­tions, but that is not on the hori­zon as the univer­sity con­tends with mil­lions of dol­lars in un­col­lected tu­ition and a mas­sive back­log of de­ferred main­te­nance costs. Howard and its hos­pi­tal re­ceive about $222 mil­lion in an­nual fed­eral ap­pro­pri­a­tions.

De­spite Fred­er­ick’s call for en­gage­ment, stu­dent ac­tivists were un­moved and made it clear with a mes­sage scrolled on a cam­pus side­walk weeks later: “Wel­come to the Trump plan­ta­tion. Over­seer: Wayne A.I. Fred­er­ick.”

Dis­sat­is­fac­tion with Fred­er­ick came to a head in April, when a leadership group in the fac­ulty se­nate took a vote of no con­fi­dence in the pres­i­dent and Provost An­thony Wu­toh. The group cited con­cerns about the univer­sity’s fi­nances, fail­ures in leadership and a lack of trans­parency. Other fac­ulty lead­ers chal­lenged the va­lid­ity of the vote and pledged sup­port for Fred­er­ick and Wu­toh, as did many stu­dents.

“The pre­vi­ous pres­i­dent, Sid­ney Ribeau, handed Fred­er­ick a lot of prob­lems. We can’t ex­pect him to turn it around in four years,” said Alexis Orr, who grad­u­ated Satur­day with a bach­e­lor’s de­gree in busi­ness ad­min­is­tra­tion. “I’ve seen a lot of good things come from him, but he’s also had to make a lot of hard calls. We just have to be pa­tient. He’s a three-time Howard grad, and he has the school’s best in­ter­est at heart.”

Fred­er­ick hinted at the tri­als of the past few months on Satur­day but kept the fo­cus on the Class of 2017. His ad­dress, nev­er­the­less, al­luded to the on­go­ing de­bate at the school and at other HBCUs over en­gag­ing the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion.

“The jour­ney of one’s aca­demic pur­suit will at times be un­com­fort­able, it will en­sure that stu­dents and fac­ulty alike gain in­sights into the va­ri­ety of ex­pe­ri­ences of the hu­man con­di­tion, the essence of which is en­gage­ment and not iso­la­tion,” he told grad­u­ates.


Howard grad­u­ates were im­plored by Sen. Ka­mala D. Har­ris at Satur­day’s com­mence­ment to fight Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion poli­cies.


TOP: The Class of 2017 sings “Alma Mater” dur­ing the cer­e­mony. ABOVE: Sen. Ka­mala D. Har­ris (DCalif.) tells grad­u­ates: “We have a fight ahead. It’s a fight to de­ter­mine what kind of coun­try we will be. And it’s a fight to de­ter­mine whether we are will­ing to stand up for our deep­est val­ues.”

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