It was a scene befitting a Marx Brothers movie, plenty of moving parts and plenty of laughs to go around. Only this was real life and it happened in the White House Oval Office with President Donald J. Trump and an assortment of several dozen presidents and chancellors from the nation’s historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs).
The president himself was in on the fun. He lauded the gathering as the biggest meeting he had seen in the Oval Office, and then he upset the tone calling the presidents “you people.” Oops. Or maybe not.
“You people are doing an amazing job,” His Nibs said, according to four people who were there, with two saying that he used the phrase three different times. We all know that’s typical Trump.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, the billionaire who’s made a career out of donating huge sums of money to destroy public schools, got in on the merriment as well. That was when DeVos called the schools — which were created in the face of laws which made it illegal to teach black people to read in some places — “pioneers” of “school choice.” Some of the assembled college presidents went bonkers, according to published reports.
DeVos said HBCUs are “living proof that when more options are provided to students, they are afforded greater access and greater quality.” Options? Provided by whom?
The NAACP reacted angrily to the insult: “Betsy DeVos’ statement concerning historically black colleges and universities was a painful display of a fundamental misunderstanding of the tragic history of race and education in America. To consider HBCUs as ‘real pioneers when it comes to school choice’ is a revisionist rendering of history, at best, and a blatant disregard for the legacy of segregation and resistance in America, at worst,” the group said in a statement.
And of course, White House Counselor Kellyanne Conway also got a piece of the action. She repeatedly referred to “HBCUs” using the wrong acronym, calling them “HCBUs.” Conway was being interviewed on Fox News, explaining the skanky picture of her which appeared, her feet — shoes on — on the Oval Office sofa, as she knelt indelicately taking a photo of the proceedings.
The 90 or so presidents were called together by the leadership of Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), the only black Republican in the Senate. They came for a variety of reasons, and faced backlash on their campuses back home. At Howard University in Washington — which celebrated its 150th anniversary during the week of the meeting — there was graffiti left on walkways all over campus, proclaiming, “Welcome to Trump plantation.”
At Morgan State in Baltimore, President David Wilson explained to the university community before the event why he was attending: “I view this as an opportunity for HBCUs to be a part of an initial dialogue to propose a substantive agenda for our institutions that will call on the President and Congress to invest billions of dollars in a group of colleges and universities that I think are among the most consequential that have dotted the American higher education landscape.”
Meanwhile, Atlanta’s Morehouse University President John Wilson said that he and other college leaders were excited when they heard Trump’s usual hyperbole promising to “do more for HBCUs than any other president has done before.” Trump, Wilson figured, would at least give them more for this year. Wrong!
What happened is that the president signed an executive order, moving the HBCUs from the Education Department to a new jurisdiction in the White House itself.
Morehouse’s Wilson was grossly disappointed in the photo op and nothing more, but he tried to put a positive spin on his hope for the future with the Trump administration.
“In general, the meetings were a troubling beginning to what must be a productive relationship. Trust that the HBCU community will continue to press for the kind of funding that educational excellence and national competitiveness require!” he said in a statement after the meeting.
Putting it simply: The black college presidents got played like a cheap guitar.