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First Lady Melania Trump addresses the Republican National Convention from the Rose Garden at the White House, where she touted the president's support for historically Black colleges and universities.

Alex Wong

During a Republican National Convention that seemed in part intended to try to convince voters that President Trump is not a racist, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson said that impression "could not be more wrong." And like the speaker after speaker who made that point last week, including First Lady Melania Trump, Carson said one piece of evidence of this was the president's support for historically Black colleges and universities.

“My husband’s administration has worked to try to effect change when it comes to issues around race and religion in this country,” Melania Trump said last Tuesday night. Then as did Vernon Jones, a Democratic state representative from Georgia, and South Carolina Republican U.S. senator Tim Scott, Black civil rights activist Clarence Henderson, and the president himself in his speech on Thursday, she pointed as evidence of this to a bill Trump signed last year that made permanent one of the main sources of funding for HBCUs.

“He has made substantial investments in our historically Black colleges and universities,” she said. “I am so proud to see the many things he has done in such a short time.”

During a campaign, amid the racial tensions over police shootings of Black people, long-neglected HBCUs are getting attention on the campaign trail. But rather than rejoicing at the spotlight, critics, including some HBCU presidents, question how much credit Trump should receive for the funding for Black colleges in last year’s FUTURE Act.

To be sure, Scott was right when he told the convention last Tuesday that Black Americans are not a monolith in their beliefs. But publicly and privately, some HBCU presidents are cringing that their colleges are being made a prop to soften the image of a president who has been criticized for saying people on both sides of the neo-Nazi protests in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017 were “very fine people,” and for his views on immigration.

“It’s like when people say someone is a racist, and they say, ‘No, I’m not, I have a Black friend,’” said Walter Kimbrough, president of the Dillard University, an HBCU in New Orleans.

Meanwhile, as HBCUs take an unusually visible place in this presidential campaign, including Democratic nominee Joe Biden's selection of Howard University graduate Kamala Harris as his running mate, Trump’s supporters are also bringing up the Obama administration's own often contentious relationship with the colleges, and linking Obama's former vice president to it.

“Joe Biden also failed our historically Black colleges and universities, heaping blame on them as they fought to ensure our young folks had access to higher education,” Scott told the convention Monday night.

“Once again, to clean up Joe Biden’s mess, President Trump signed into law historically high funding for HBCUs as well as a bill to give them permanent funding for the first time ever.”

Trump campaign spokeswoman Courtney Parella followed up in a statement to Inside Higher Ed, “President Trump has done more to improve higher education for Black Americans in four years than Joe Biden has done in over 40. This president and his administration have provided historic funding for historically Black colleges and universities, more than any other administration, and he will continue prioritizing the success of HBCUs after he is re-elected for another four years,” she said. Biden's campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

The Trump campaign's claim is nothing new. Trump in January exaggerated the significance of the funding bill. The measure not only extended $255 million in annual STEM funding for HBCUs and other minority-serving colleges after it was allowed to expire, but guaranteed the money will keep coming by making it permanent.

“I saved HBCUs. We saved them,” Trump said at a business conference in January. “They were going out, and we saved them.”

It’s true that the FUTURE Act was significant for HBCUs. The United Negro College Fund at the time called the measure “once-in-a-lifetime” and “landmark.” Thurgood Marshall College Fund president and CEO Harry L. Williams said in a statement then that the organization’s 47 colleges “are grateful to President Trump for continuing to show his unwavering support for the entire Black college community” by signing the bill. But while the funding stream is important for HBCUs, the colleges weren't going to fail without it.

Trump didn't come up with the idea, and it’s unclear to what extent he was responsible for making the funding permanent, other than signing the bill after it was proposed and passed by members of Congress. Initially the bill, which would have only extended the funding another two years, was proposed by a bipartisan group of lawmakers: Alma Adams, a Democrat from North Carolina, and Congressman Mark Walker, a Republican also from North Carolina, as well as Scott and Senator Doug Jones, a Democrat from Alabama.

“The only words the president contributed were his signature, ‘Donald J. Trump,’” Adams, a former art professor at Bennett College, a private HBCU in North Carolina, said in a statement.

According to sources familiar with the negotiations over the FUTURE Act, all sides, congressional Republicans and Democrats and the administration, were supportive of making the STEM funding for HBCUs permanent. But there wasn’t a way to pay for it initially beyond a couple of years.

The two-year extension was passed by the House, but then was blocked in the Senate by the Republican chairman of the education committee, Lamar Alexander, who was concerned over the way the House proposed paying for it and said he wanted a longer-term solution.

He and the top Democrat in the education committee, Patty Murray, disagreed over whether to include it as part of a larger reauthorization of the Higher Education Act -- along with other issues from increasing the size of Pell Grants and blocking Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s new policy on sexual harassment and assault on campuses -- as Democrats wanted, or to include it in the more piecemeal approach favored by Alexander. During the stalemate, the funding expired.

In the negotiations that followed, most directly between Alexander and Murray, the sides agreed to pair it with two other proposals, simplifying applying for financial aid as well as streamlining a program to tie the amount student loan borrowers have to pay based on income. It was Alexander who proposed using the savings from the changes to Free Application for Federal Student Aid forms and the income-based repayment program to pay for making the HBCU funding permanent.

Democrats knowledgeable about the negotiations said that despite the credit Trump is taking, the administration wasn't involved in the negotiations wherein the idea of guaranteeing the funding to Black colleges permanently was hatched.

“President Trump’s involvement consisted of picking up a pen and signing the bill,” a Democratic aide said. “In fact, for months, the Trump administration defended Republican inaction that let funding for HBCUs expire.”

Adams said, “Unfortunately, as Black women, we’re used to seeing someone else take credit for the fruits of our labor.”

However, Alexander does credit Trump. In a tweet when the bill was signed, Alexander credited DeVos and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, saying, “it took the two of you to make it possible to simplify the #FAFSA and permanently fund #HBCUs. #FUTUREAct.”

A Republican Senate education committee spokesman in a statement last week acknowledged, “The permanent HBCU funding originated in the Republican Senate after the Democrat House passed a two-year stopgap.” But the spokesman said also, “This amendment to the FUTURE Act simply would not have happened without President Trump, Secretary Mnuchin, Secretary DeVos, and Ivanka Trump. Bipartisan, bicameral congressional leaders and certainly President Trump and his administration all deserve credit for delivering permanent funding to our HBCUs.”

The president's daughter indeed did take to Twitter several times to support the measure. When the HBCU funding expired during the negotiations, DeVos reassured HBCUs in a letter that the Education Department would be giving them the money for another year.

However, spokespeople for Alexander, the Education Department and the White House couldn’t detail what Trump's role was other than to sign the bill. To the extent that it appeared during the convention’s speeches that Trump was the driving force in making the funding for the colleges permanent, that doesn’t appear to be entirely true.

Trump, for his part, has acknowledged the Senate played a role in the creating the funding, though he didn’t acknowledge the role of Democrats and didn’t invite any to the bill-signing ceremony. “GREAT WORK yesterday by the Senate to support our historically Black colleges and universities!” Trump tweeted. “Thank you @BetsyDeVosED, @SenAlexander, and @SenatorTimScott for your leadership.”

One HBCU president, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity, said it appeared Trump was riding on an act by Congress. “It’s like when someone runs the 100-meter [dash], with a wind at their back, and breaks the world record,” the university president said.

“Yes. It’s true he signed it,” Kimbrough said. “He didn't ask for it, though. It’s part of the defense for racism -- that he’s the best for African Americans.”

There are things Trump could rightly take credit for, Kimbrough said. Most notably, DeVos in March 2018 forgave more than $300 million in Hurricane Katrina federal disaster relief loans for Kimbrough’s university, as well as three other HBCUs, Southern University at New Orleans, Tougaloo College and Xavier University of Louisiana.

“Betsy DeVos did that. The Obama administration could have done that. But they didn’t,” Kimbrough said.

In addition, federal programs that the United Negro College Fund deems most important to HBCUs have seen a collective increase of more than $200 million in funding. For example, the Strengthening Historically Black Colleges program, which is part of Title III, increased from $245 million in federal support in 2017 to $325 million last year.

But those also were passed by Congress. What’s more telling about Trump’s record, Kimbrough said, is that the administration largely didn't propose increasing the main sources of funding for HBCUs in his three budget proposals made to Congress, instead recommending funding for the most part be kept the same as the previous year each time.

The two main groups supporting HBCUs, the United Negro College Fund and the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, declined comment. But Trump’s budget proposals have at times drawn criticism.

When Trump made his first budget proposal in 2017, United Negro College Fund president and CEO Michael L. Lomax noted that Trump had promised “unwavering support for HBCUs” two weeks earlier. “Unfortunately, that support did not translate into increased federal investments in HBCUs,” he said, noting that Trump also proposed cuts in the TRIO and GEAR UP aid programs for at-risk college students.

Trump’s proposals, however, have had their defenders among HBCU organizations. After one of the proposals that would have kept HBCU funding flat, Johnny C. Taylor Jr., then president and CEO of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, said in a statement, “Some are critical of President Trump because they believe he should have significantly increased the budget for HBCUs. Such notions are naïve in the current political environment in Washington, now run by Republicans who’ve vowed to reduce the size of government.”

However, HBCUs also had problems with the Obama administration, and a spokesman for Scott said the senator was alluding to them when he accused Biden at the convention of having “failed” the institutions.

Obama in 2015 angered HBCU presidents when, according to The Washington Post, he said in a speech to the Congressional Black Caucus that the colleges needed to do a better job graduating students and not saddling them with debt. The remark was seen as tone-deaf by a president, who while historic as the nation's first African American chief executive, was seen by some as an Ivy Leaguer not knowledgeable about HBCUs. The comment was tone-deaf, they said, ignoring the fact that the colleges have been historically underfunded and often work with students who have suffered from disproportionately poorer K-12 education than colleges with more white students.

Kimbrough said some HBCU presidents were also angry at the Obama administration’s push to make it more difficult for parents to borrow money through the Parent PLUS program. While the Obama administration worried the program put parents into debt they could not repay, the move decreased enrollment at HBCUs.

“I think what happened with the Parent PLUS left a bad taste in people’s minds,” Kimbrough said, though he said that’s been softened by recent studies the loans hurt families of color financially.

Obama also proposed no increases in HBCU funding in most of the budget proposals he made. But at times he also proposed major increases, including his 2015 America’s College Promise, which included grants to lower or eliminate tuition at HBCUs and other minority-serving institutions. Obama also increased the size of Pell Grants by $1,000, which aids many HBCU students.

Ivory Toldson, a professor of psychology at Howard University who served as the Obama administration’s liaison with HBCUs, noted that Biden spoke at the administration’s annual summit with leaders of the Black colleges in 2015, where, according to an article at the time in the Indianapolis Recorder, an African American newspaper, his job was to smooth over initial concerns that the Obama administration’s proposal to make community colleges free would undercut HBCUs.

“I’ll be straight with you, I know a lot of you were a little bit upset when we called for two years of free community college,” the newspaper reported Biden as saying. “Some of you are my friends, heads of universities, and you called me and said, ‘Joe, is that going to undercut us? We’re having financial difficulties now.’ The answer is it will not.”

But Kimbrough said the reality is none of the four candidates on the two presidential tickets is particularly known for what they've done for HBCUs, except for Harris, who pushed a number of measures for Black colleges as a senator from California.

Toldson agreed that her selection as Biden's running mate is significant to HBCUs. “You typically see people from Harvard and Yale in the White House,” he said. “This is potentially an opportunity for HBCUs to have the same benefit.”

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