President Donald Trump meets with leaders of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Monday, Feb. 27, 2017. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
Photo: Pablo Martinez Monsivais
Photo: Pablo Martinez Monsivais

Atlanta’s black college leaders hope Trump’s order will bring help

Leaders of Atlanta’s historically black colleges and universities hope an executive order President Donald Trump signed Tuesday will result in more support such as increased Pell Grants and improvements to older buildings in dire need of repair.

Trump’s order moves the office dedicated to supporting the schools from the U.S. Department of Education to the White House. Some describe that a symbolic but important first step in strengthening his administration’s relationships with the nation’s 107 HBCUs. The order also proposes increasing the role of the private-sector, including private foundations, in improving infrastructure and technology at HBCUs, and it pledges to increase their ability to apply for federal grants.

“In this executive order, we will make HBCUs an absolute priority,” Trump said to applause during the signing ceremony Tuesday.

Among those attending the first-of-its-kind meeting were the presidents from Atlanta’s largest HBCUs, Morehouse College, Spelman College and Clark Atlanta University.

It was a more friendly atmosphere than Trump engendered in February. He talked about the coming executive order after a press conference exchange with an African-American journalist, at which some African-Americans took offense.

An explainer on Historically Black Colleges and Universities

Morehouse President John S. Wilson said Trump is hoping to outdo his predecessor, former President Barack Obama, the nation’s first African-American president, in his outreach to HBCUs.

“They did the outreach to us,” Wilson said. “They said ‘We understand you and we want to treat you better.’”

HBCU leaders said their most important goal is to get more money for the colleges, which educate about 20,000 Georgia students, many of whom have trouble affording tuition. The order does not address funding, but HBCU leaders expect to discuss the topic in meetings later this year.

Federal funding for Pell Grants, aid for low-income students that currently tops out at $5,815 a year, declined during the Obama administration. Lack of money suspends or stops some HBCU students from completing their degrees, some complained. Clark Atlanta University president Ronald A. Johnson said about 70 percent of his 3,800 students are eligible for Pell Grants. The leaders asked for an increase in Pell Grant funding as part of a 10-point plan they sent to Trump and discussed with his staff in meetings this week.

Johnson also hopes Trump’s talk about a national infrastructure program will result in projects that repair some CAU campus buildings that are nearly a century old, currently shuttered in need of asbestos abatement.

“It’s important we look at these places and receive the type of support we need,” Johnson said in a telephone interview Tuesday.

Wilson said he’s hoping as well for an increase in funding to HBCUs to the tune of an additional $500 million a year. Trump was scheduled to discussed his budget priorities in an address to Congress Tuesday night.

In return, Trump is looking for the colleges to produce more graduates prepared for the labor force, Wilson said.

During meetings with Trump’s team, Spelman College president Mary Schmidt Campbell spoke on the role of HBCUs in revitalizing local communities, from working with K-12 public education to public safety. The leaders made their pitch using historical context, noting more than half of the nation’s African-American doctors are HBCU graduates, and also the 150 years they’ve spent educating African-Americans.

“I think one way for this nation to not only protect our future competitiveness is to support these enhancements as a way of saying thank you for being that stabilizing force when America needed it,” Wilson said.

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who participated in the meetings, was criticized Tuesday when she said HBCUs are “real pioneers when it comes to school choice” while not mentioning they were created because of racism.

Charlie Nelms, the chancellor-emeritus of North Carolina Central University and a scholar on black colleges, was dismayed by DeVos’ remarks.

“It reflected a level of cultural incompetence and a lack of understanding of the history of this country,” Nelms said. “It drove home the importance of having an education rather than a degree.”

DeVos clarified in a speech Tuesday that HBCUs were “born, not out of mere choice, but out of necessity, in the face of racism, and in the aftermath of the Civil War.”

The college presidents said they understood the skepticism about Trump, who received single-digit support among black voters in November’s election, but said it was more important to engage in dialogue.

“Nothing beats a failure but a try,” Johnson said.

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