Mixing Partying and Politics

As they fête Obama's historic inauguration, advocates for historically black colleges urge the president-elect to prioritize them in his stimulus package.
January 20, 2009

WASHINGTON -- This was primarily a night for celebration, as hundreds of supporters of historically black colleges and universities gathered at the National Postal Museum on the eve of President-elect Barack Obama’s inauguration to mark a historic moment. But it would not have been a Washington event if the revelers, as they danced and sipped on champagne, had not taken significant time to engage in the city’s true pastime: politicking. Chief among their wishes, HBCU leaders urged Obama to prioritize their institutions in his forthcoming economic stimulus package.

Michael L. Lomax, president of the United Negro College Fund -- which co-sponsored Monday's gala, along with the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education and the Thurgood Marshall College Fund -- said that despite the fact that Obama did not attend any historically black institutions (Obama attended Occidental College and is a graduate of Columbia University and Harvard Law School) Lomax believes the president-elect understands their vision and place in higher education. Over the past two years of his presidential campaign, Obama held events on the campuses of many of these institutions and, Lomax said, conferred with many of their leaders. Also, as a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, Obama has been one of the “most stalwart champions” of HBCUs, added Lomax -- himself a graduate of Morehouse College before attending Columbia and Emory Universities.

“I think he knows our community,” Lomax said of Obama. “Today, there is not a wall blocking off our institutions the way there was before. These colleges are not marginal institutions anymore, and Obama understands they are of the academic mainstream.”

Other attendees at the gala echoed Lomax’s impression of the president-elect, certain that he has their best interests at heart in the coming years.

“You don’t have to attend an HBCU to understand and appreciate them,” said Beverly Daniel Tatum, president of Spelman College, pointing to herself as an example -- a graduate of Wesleyan University and the University of Michigan.

As they mingled and talked shop, the attendees had little to say about Arne Duncan, secretary-designate of education, and his potential involvement in shaping higher education policy, except to acknowledge that he himself has had little to say about higher education.

“Clearly, we’re going to have to wait and see who the pick is for [assistant secretary for] postsecondary education,” Lomax said. “The voice that you’ve not heard at the table of the national discussion right now is that of postsecondary education. Still, I’m prepared to give [the Obama administration] more time. Higher education needs to think about why it is that it has been left out of the conversation.”

Others emphasized that they were heartened by some of the commitments they have already seen from the president-elect.

Ernest McNealey, president of Stillman College, said he was encouraged by Obama’s commitment to expanding funding for Pell Grants -- a sentiment expressed by many throughout the evening. Initial reports about the president-elect’s stimulus package suggest that it will include more than $15.6 billion for the grants. McNealey and other presidents at the gala expressed the importance of Pell and other federal grant programs for the often low-income students of their institutions. "Access" was chief among buzz words many leaders said they hoped Obama would continue to champion.

Although proposed increases to Pell have encouraged some HBCU leaders, many said they hope Obama will further show his understanding of their institutions by prioritizing them in other aspects of his economic stimulus package. Dwayne Ashley, president of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, said that HBCUs face a number of challenges that other institutions do not. He noted that as HBCUs often produce a sizable majority of African American graduates in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, they could use more federal funding to conduct more research and to expand their resources for these students.

Speaking before the estimated 800-plus attendees at the gala, Lezli Baskerville, president of the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education, urged everyone to lobby their members of Congress -- the day after the inauguration.

“HBCUs must be a part of the economic stimulus package,” she said, noting that 70 percent of African American graduates in the STEM fields and 50 percent of African American teachers are products of HBCUs. “If you want to stimulate this economy, tell your member of Congress, we must continue to educate.”

While Baskerville ensured the revelers at the gala that this was a time for celebration, she said Wednesday -- Obama’s first full day in office -- was a time for action for supporters of HBCUs.


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