Obama Extends U.S. Efforts for Black Colleges

Director of federal initiative sees shift in approach -- and key role for these institutions in president's plans to increase share of population that is college educated.
March 1, 2010

WASHINGTON -- President Obama on Friday signed a renewal of the executive order on federal efforts to assist historically black colleges. While the executive order itself follows the form of orders in previous administrations, the head of the Obama administration's effort for the colleges said that the executive order would set off a change in philosophy on how the government could work with the institutions.

The order itself authorizes the continuation of an office in the Education Department to focus on ways that all federal agencies can work with and support historically black colleges. President Obama signed the order at a White House ceremony attended by numerous black political and education leaders as well as the Trojan Explosion Drum Line from Virginia State University.

In his remarks, Obama noted the financial challenges facing black colleges (and just about all of higher education) these days, and also their role. "It was because of these schools that America's middle class was filled with black doctors and educators and judges and lawyers and engineers and entrepreneurs," he said. "And today, it's because of these schools that one out of every two wide-eyed freshmen who arrives on their campuses with big backpacks and bigger dreams is the first in his or her family to go to college."

John Silvanus Wilson Jr., who is heading the black college office in the Obama administration, said the ceremony made Friday "a great day" for black colleges -- in part because of a new emphasis the office is taking.

Wilson noted that the order calls for "enduring" efforts, as opposed to simply encouraging various efforts to create small grant programs. And he said that he would be pushing for "data-driven" initiatives in which ideas are tried, evaluated and -- if successful -- extended.

The idea, he said is to promote "steeples of excellence" in federal interactions with black colleges instead of "periodic episodes of good works." He also said he expected black colleges to be heavily involved in the Obama administration's efforts to increase the percentage of Americans who have college degrees. "We want to focus on the relationship of black colleges with the government in a more strategic way," he said.

Also Friday, President Obama named William R. Harvey, president of Hampton University, to lead the federal advisory committee on black colleges.

Wilson said that a shift in focus is also visible in the membership of the panel. While past administrations' committees have been dominated by black college presidents, Wilson said that Obama wanted more members from the business and philanthropy worlds as well as educators from outside the black college world.

Wilson has championed the idea that black colleges can improve their private fund raising efforts and corporate ties. And the members that Obama named Friday include administrators at both historically black and predominantly white institutions as well as business leaders. Besides Harvey, the members are:

  • Lawrence S. Bacow, president of Tufts University.
  • Evelynn M. Hammonds, dean of Harvard College and the Barbara Gutmann Rosenkrantz, professor of the history of science and of African and African-American studies at Harvard University.
  • Beverly Wade Hogan, president of Tougaloo College.
  • Edward Lewis, co-founder of Essence magazine and chairman and publisher emeritus of Essence Communications Inc.
  • Ronald Mason, Jr., president of Jackson State University.
  • Valerie Mosley, senior vice president, partner, and portfolio manager for Wellington Management Company.
  • Willie Pearson Jr., professor of sociology at the Georgia Institute of Technology.
  • Beverly Daniel Tatum, president of Spelman College.
  • Kenneth Tolson, executive senior vice president and chief operating officer of the Emerging Technology Consortium, part of Technology Based Economic Development for the 21st Century.
  • David Wilson, incoming president of Morgan State University.


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