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A Trump Flip-Flop on Black Colleges

On Friday, he suggests aid program for black colleges may be unconstitutional. On Sunday, he says his support for the institutions is “unwavering.”

May 8, 2017
 
President Trump

President Trump confused and angered advocates for historically black colleges Friday when he suggested that a key aid program for the institutions could be unconstitutional. But, amid criticism, Trump aides reached out to black-college supporters and said his Friday comment didn't mean he was going to change anything. And then on Sunday he issued a statement calling his support for the institutions “unwavering.”

The controversy is frustrating many black-college supporters, some of whom continue to doubt the Trump administration's professed commitment to their institutions, despite a highly publicized meeting when Trump invited HBCU leaders to the White House.

Some advocates said in interviews over the weekend that they were told the White House would clarify the president's views with a public statement of some kind. While he did issue a statement of support for black colleges Sunday night, he didn't explain why the program for black colleges was included on a list of programs he thought might be unconstitutional.

The comment that set off the controversy came in his statement on signing legislation that will fund government operations through Sept. 30. When presidents sign large budget bills, they sometimes indicate provisions about which they have legal questions. In this case, Trump cited five programs that he said required review because they “allocate benefits on the basis of race, ethnicity and gender.” He said he would carry out the provisions in the bill for funding these programs “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 may be found here, and the controversy is about the last paragraph.)

One of the programs Trump included was the Historically Black College and University Capital Financing Program Account, which helps HBCUs obtain financing for construction projects.

To supporters of black colleges, including the program in his list of suspect federal efforts suggested the administration incorrectly believes that black colleges exclude people who are not black. In fact, every historically black college is open to people of all races and ethnicities, several have growing Latino student populations, and a few are majority white. “Historically black” refers to institutions created during the Jim Crow era to serve black students, but not to a policy of discrimination by the colleges. The point is important legally, because if black colleges did exclude nonblack people, the institutions would be violating numerous laws and programs, such as the one Trump cited, probably would be suspect.

Cheryl L. Smith, senior vice president of public policy and government affairs at UNCF, issued a statement shortly after Politico wrote about the initial Trump statement, in which she said her organization was “puzzled” by what Trump said.

She said the statement may indicate that the administration engaged in “perhaps not fully understanding this important distinction” that black colleges don't limit themselves to black students. She added that “the designation of an historically black college or university is not based on race, but rather on mission, accreditation status and year the institution was established, as defined in the Higher Education Act.”

Saturday evening, the UNCF released another statement in which it said that it has “received informal assurance from White House officials that the paragraph is not intended to indicate any policy change toward HBCUs and that the administration intends to implement the HBCU Capital Financing Program.” The statement went on to say that UNCF “urges the White House to issue an official clarification of its policy to the HBCU community, as the HBCU Capital Financing Program has provided tremendous value to HBCUs and the students they serve over the past 25 years.”

Johnny C. Taylor Jr., president and CEO of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, which represents public historically black colleges, said he too had received assurances from officials in the White House Saturday saying no changes are planned for the program. Taylor indicated that the U.S. Department of Education will be clarifying the issue.

Taylor said he was "shocked" to learn of the Trump comments. "I was blindsided," he said.

The federal program to help black colleges borrow money for construction is considered vital to many of the institutions. Many lack the endowments or state support of other colleges. And a study by Duke University researchers last year found that historically black colleges end up paying more than colleges on similar financial footing to issue the same value of bonds.

Lezli Baskerville, president of the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education, known as NAFEO, which works on behalf of HBCUs, said that black colleges have "historically been denied full access to loan markets," making the federal program crucial.

The Trump administration has pledged repeatedly to make historically black colleges a priority and promised to work closely with them. This was a major point of his Feb. 27 Oval Office meeting with many black-college presidents.

But UNCF, NAFEO and the Thurgood Marshall Fund -- the three major groups of black college leaders -- all report that they had no advance word that Trump was going to make his comments Friday.

Sunday night's statement by the president said that his Friday statement "does not affect my unwavering support for HBCUs and their critical educational missions." The Sunday statement didn't indicate why the black-college program was mentioned Friday. The Sunday statement also noted that the president had signed an executive order outlining ways that federal agencies could support black colleges, and said that the president "looked forward" to selecting an executive director to lead that effort.

The Sunday statement from the White House was quickly followed by one from the Education Department. Betsy DeVos, the education secretary, said, "I am a strong supporter of historically black colleges and universities and the critical role they play in communities and in our higher education system. I am happy to see the president reaffirmed this administration’s support for HBCUs. I will continue to be an advocate for them and for programs that make higher education more accessible to all students."

Debate Over White House Efforts

The Trump statement on Friday renewed a debate on social media over whether black college leaders were duped into a photo opportunity with a president who has since proposed cuts to programs that help black students (at HBCUs and elsewhere).

In a much-shared Tweet, Keith Boykin, a CNN commentator who was an aide in President Clinton's White House and who writes widely on issues of race and politics, had this to say:

John S. Wilson, who led President Obama's efforts on behalf of black colleges, served on the board of the HBCU Capital Financing Program, and is a former president of Morehouse College, said that black colleges have been able to use the relatively small sum of funds available in the program ($20 million) to obtain more than $200 million in private support. "It is a classic example of being a hand, rather than a handout," he said.

As for Trump's comments about the program, Wilson said (prior to Sunday night's statements), “Many of us have been waiting to see exactly how he would fulfill his promise to do something ‘historic,’ and to ‘do more for HBCUs than any other president has done before.’ With this existential threat to the capital finance program, he is clearly moving in the wrong direction.”

Taylor, who has been the most outspoken leader in the HBCU world advocating a close relationship with the Trump administration, said this latest development did not have him doubting the idea of working with the White House. He said he believed that the statement on black colleges was added by “some staffer who probably saw the word ‘black’” and didn't know about black colleges or the program in particular. Taylor said he didn't think this statement reflected any lack of appreciation for historically black colleges.

The administration -- and DeVos in particular -- has been challenged by supporters of black colleges on whether they know enough about the institutions. In February, DeVos infuriated many educators and students at HBCUs when she praised black colleges as “real pioneers when it comes to school choice.” That phrase struck many who know the history of black colleges as tone-deaf at best and ignorant at worst, in that black colleges were created in an era when black students were denied choices and were barred from most colleges that were not HBCUs.

DeVos plans to visit Bethune-Cookman University to give the commencement address Wednesday -- a trip that has been seen as part of an effort to improve relations with black colleges. But already -- prior to Trump's statement on Friday -- there have been protests and a petition against having her as a speaker. The college has stood by the decision.

The UNCF noted that Bethune-Cookman is among the colleges that have received funds through the program whose legal status Trump appeared to question Friday.

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