President Donald Trump met with HBCU leaders and signed an executive order pertaining to HBCUs.
In late February, leaders from historically black colleges gathered in the Oval Office to meet with President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence in what they hoped would be a listening session and a chance to build a fruitful relationship. Progressive critics chided it as no more than a "photo op" and a disrespectful one at that given that the photograph that ended up receiving the most attention from that day was one of Kellyanne Conway taking a picture of the HBCU visitors with her cell phone while seated with her feet on a couch. Still, school leaders insisted that the door had been opened for "meaningful actions" from the president and perhaps even "additional resources and investments."
What they might not have expected was the slap in the face the White House delivered last Friday in the form of a "signing statement" that questioned whether directing low-cost construction loans to historically black schools was constitutional. Given that the rather modest $20 million or so federal program has been in effect since 1992 under Democratic and Republican administrations alike, and given how badly the funds are needed to help the schools repair and replace buildings and other campus facilities, and given how the schools don't actually discriminate (you don't have to be black to attend), one imagines this didn't go over well at places like Maryland's Morgan State, Coppin State and Bowie State universities and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore.
The Trump administration scrambled to repair the damage. On Sunday, the White House released a statement with Mr. Trump pledging "unwavering support" for historically black colleges and observing that the stop-gap spending bill he signed last week included money for the construction loans. He also noted that Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is scheduled to give the commencement address at Bethune-Cookman University Tuesday and that he has launched an "initiative" to "strengthen the capacity of HBCUs to provide the highest-quality education."
In other words, President Trump said "oops" without exactly apologizing.
A bit of perspective may be in order. Signing statements are essentially a written commentary presidents sometimes add when they sign bills and which critics charge are often aimed at undermining the very laws they've signed. While signing statements carry no legal weight, they can send a powerful message to federal agencies and courts that are supposed to enforce and uphold the law. Ultimately, there are really just two possible explanations for Mr. Trump's unexpected shot at HBCU support: Either he wasn't sincere in his original outreach to HBCUs, or chaos simply reigns supreme and in the Trump White House the right hand may not know what the far-right hand is doing.
Neither is a happy thought, but obviously, deliberately undermining federal aid for historically black schools poses the far greater threat than a simple miscommunication (or the unsurprising presence within the White House of political conservatives who see support for colleges that have long accepted black students as a form of discrimination against whites and a violation of the equal protection clause).
Let's set the record straight. The nation's 103 HBCUs are facing a challenge. They are still dealing with the legacy of segregation — and particularly a historical lack of financial support from both the private and public sectors — as well as an evolving mission. While they continue to provide opportunities for African Americans, HBCUs have also become critically important in providing a college education to students of all backgrounds and especially those who are poor or otherwise less academically well prepared. The means by which HBCUs in Maryland have sought to solidify their new role — a long-running federal lawsuit that could potentially result in the transfer of some popular programs from other universities — may be hotly contested, but their vital importance in the state's higher education landscape is not.
Mr. Trump's backpedaling may have helped repair the damage, but it's not surprising to hear that some HBCU presidents are now more skeptical about his position. If President Trump has demonstrated anything in his first four months in office, it's that he must be judged by deed and not by words, which don't seem to be especially meaningful to him. As Morgan State President David Wilson told The Sun on Tuesday, "I'm hopeful it was a misunderstanding, but we'll see what happens in the next budget and whether the president's words and his embrace of HBCUs translate into additional investment." In other words, the HBCU presidents would be wise to extract what they can from the Republican president — but have their lawyers on standby.