A statement from the White House over the weekend suggested that a certain financial program for historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) may be unconstitutional — an implication that has raised concerns among supporters and leaders of HBCUs.
“My Administration shall treat provisions that allocate benefits on the basis of race, ethnicity, and gender … in a manner consistent with the requirement to afford equal protection of the laws under the Due Process Clause of the Constitution’s Fifth Amendment,” the statement reads, specifically citing the “Historically Black College and University Capital Financing Program Account.” The statement was in reference to President Donald Trump’s signage of H.R. 244, the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2017.
The purpose of the program is to provide financing or refinancing opportunities for HBCUs that they can use for renovating, building or repairing campus buildings, laboratories, dormitories, research equipment and other various infrastructures. Any accredited HBCU is eligible to apply for a loan.
While HBCUs were established so Blacks could obtain an education during a time when traditional schools would not admit them, they notably serve students of all ethnicities today. According to a Pew Research Center report from February:
“Although these schools were established to serve black students, HBCUs have long enrolled students of all races and ethnicities – a trend that has become more prevalent over the years. The percentage of HBCU students who were either white, Hispanic, Asian or Pacific Islander, or Native American was 17% in 2015, up from 13% in 1980. Hispanic students, in particular, have seen their overall shares grow on HBCU campuses, increasing from 1.6% in 1980 to 4.6% in 2015.”
Sources reported to BuzzFeed News that the part of the statement referring to HBCUs “had bypassed those who had worked on HBCU issues.”
“The timing of this was crazy… It totally blindsided the White House domestic policy staff and all of the key players on this issue, and it subsequently blindsided the HBCU community,” one source reported to the outlet, calling the statement “tone-deaf.”
According to BuzzFeed, the source said “that black colleges saw as ‘literally attacking not just HBCUs but Native Americans.’”
The White House statement also singled out “Native American Housing Block Grants,” which provides grants for housing on Indian Reservations and areas.
HBCUs and Pell Grants will receive no additional funding, will Pell Grants in fact losing their reserve funding entirely.
Critics said that the tone-deaf statement further demonstrates Trump’s lack of understanding of struggles faced by HBCUs.
“He doesn’t understand that he was given a leg up by his rich father,” said Marybeth Gasman, a professor with knowledge of HBCU history, to The Washington Post. “He doesn’t see that other people need help from programs because of past discrimination and inequity.”
Reps. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) and Cedric L. Richmond (D-La.) slammed Trump in a joint statement.
“Trump’s statement is not only misinformed factually, it is not grounded in any serious constitutional analysis,” the men said. “For a President who pledged to reach out to African Americans and other minorities, this statement is stunningly careless and divisive. We urge him to reconsider immediately.”
Others took to Twitter to express their disappointment.
Dear @realDonaldTrump, hire some new lawyers if you think banning muslims is constitutional and funding black colleges is unconstitutional.
— Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (@repcleaver) May 6, 2017
Trump just said f*** you to every HBCU president who sat up in the Oval Office and smiled in his lying face. https://t.co/ggIwbWx2Nw
— Keith Boykin (@keithboykin) May 6, 2017
— Star Jones (@StarJonesEsq) May 6, 2017
Others were less concerned, including the United Negro College Fund (UNCF), which reported to the Post that they were not worried yet.
“We’re not overly alarmed at this point, based on informal reassurances and just our own knowledge of how these funding statement[s] get put together,” said Cheryl L. Smith, UNCF senior vice president of public policy and government affairs.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos demonstrated her lack of knowledge on the history of Historically Black Colleges and Universities after the meeting took place, calling them examples of “school choice.”
A White House spokesperson stated in response to the criticism that Trump’s predecessors, including former Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, took similar action, Politico reported.
“President Trump has identified certain provisions in the appropriations bill that could, in some circumstances, conflict with his constitutional authority and duties,” the spokesperson said. “The brief, routine signing statement simply indicates that the president will interpret those provisions consistent with the Constitution.”
According to Politico, the former presidents “often issued such statements when they signed legislation to signal they might ignore or disregard parts of laws passed by Congress.”
But the Friday statement, coupled with the Trump administration’s already shaky relationship with HBCUs, raised eyebrows.
In a follow-up on Sunday, Trump said that the release “does not affect my unwavering support for HBCUs and their critical educational missions.”
“In general, the meetings were a troubling beginning to what must be a productive relationship,” wrote Morehouse President John Silvanus Wilson Jr.
His “unwavering support” was largely questioned following the release of Trump’s budget proposal, which did not include an increase in funding for HBCUs and will take money away from and eliminate programs that help disadvantaged students.
The Education Department will, under the new proposal, suffer a 13.5 percent budget cut, going from $68.2 billion in 2017 to $59 billion in 2018. Not only will HBCUs and the Pell Grant Program receive no additional funding, but the Pell Grant Program will lose its $3.9 billion reserve fund, which leaders had hoped to allocate to summer programs.
Leaders of HBCUs spoke out in disappointment after attending a meeting at the White House for what were intended to be “listening sessions.” According to one HBCU president, very little listening occurred that day.
Walter M. Kimbrough, president of Dillard University, said he was under the impression he would be meeting with members of the Trump administration, particularly Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. But Kimbrough revealed in a blog post that the agenda took a very different turn:
“That all blew up when the decision was made to take the presidents to the Oval Office to see the President. I’m still processing that entire experience. But needless to say that threw the day off and there was very little listening to HBCU presidents today- we were only given about 2 minutes each, and that was cut to one minute, so only about 7 of maybe 15 or so speakers were given an opportunity today.”
DeVos faced backlash following the meeting when she described HBCUs as “real pioneers when it comes to school choice.”
“They are living proof that when more options are provided to students, they are afforded greater access and greater quality,” DeVos said.
But the history of HBCUs was not about “more options” as much as it was about the only option Blacks had for a fair education. According to “The History of HBCUs”:
“A paltry handful of traditionally white colleges accepted black applicants in the first part of the 19th century. And three colleges, two in Pennsylvania and one in Ohio, educated mostly black students in the mid-1800s.
“But after the Civil War, African American education blossomed. Black ministers and white philanthropists established schools all across the South to educate freed slaves. These schools, more than 100 of which are still open today, became known as historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs.
“‘They started in church basements, they started in old schoolhouses, they started in people’s homes,’ says Marybeth Gasman, a historian at the University of Pennsylvania who studies HBCUs. ‘[Former slaves] were hungry for learning … because of course, education had been kept from them.’”