Like everyone else, my social media feeds this week were filled with photos of a group of HBCU presidents standing around President Trump in the Oval Office, all of them smiling awkwardly and seeming confused.
The initial outrage brought about by the photo focused on Kellyanne Conway, a senior adviser to Trump, sitting way too casually with her feet on a couch during a more than awkward moment. The next phase of outrage came after questions as to why HBCU leaders were meeting with Trump at all.
The meeting was supposed to be a “listening session” where HBCU leaders could address key Trump administrators, such as Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, concerning the major needs of HBCUs and how certain legislation affects their individual campuses. This meeting was to come before Trump signed a new executive order aimed at strengthening HBCUs, which some say is a jab at former President Barack Obama, who had an often challenging relationship with HBCUs and their leaders. What seemed to happen, which should surprise no one, is that the meeting was cut short, and HBCU leaders were hardly given an opportunity to speak at all as they were herded into the Oval Office for that photo op with Trump.
What we should also know is that HBCU presidents cannot afford to miss any opportunity that might gain them greater access to funding for their schools. I know this intimately as both an HBCU alumnus and as an educator who teaches at an HBCU.
HBCUs are struggling to stay afloat. I sit in meeting after meeting that affirms this. Graduation rates are low for many, and enrollment has been down across the board for quite some time (although many HBCUs are experiencing a hike in student enrollment as of late). Several HBCUs also face challenges with accreditation, and are often underfunded when compared with predominately White institutions.
What is rarely discussed in conversations that disparage HBCUs and their leadership, however, is that most HBCUs offer students who are underprepared for college, are first generation college students, come from low-income households and graduate from low-performing schools, an opportunity to earn a college degree, which could change not only those students’ life trajectories but the life trajectories of their families and future generations.
HBCUs do this work of serving the most vulnerable in our communities knowing that enrolling such students is a high risk. Moreover, changes to Federal Plus Loans and year-round access to Pell Grants initiated by the Obama administration has made a college education inaccessible to many nontraditional students (who make up large portions of HBCU student bodies).
Obviously, the meeting between the Trump administration and HBCU leaders left much to be desired. This is apparent considering statements DeVos made after the meeting, where she cited HBCUs as pioneers of school choice. She is clearly mistaken in her analogy, and likely tone deaf as to why HBCUs exist at all and why they need to continue, although she later backed away from the statement.
It seems asinine that HBCU leaders are being ridiculed for meeting with officials from the Trump administration, considering the facts I’ve listed concerning how HBCUs are struggling and also considering 70% of students enrolled at HBCUs rely on federal Pell Grants—not to mention federal loan programs for parents and students, and the understanding that most HBCUs also rely on federal schoolwide enhancement grants to aid their often underserved and underprepared students.
If we want to point fingers, we should point at the kinds of structural and institutional racism that cause Black college students to struggle significantly more than their White counterparts, regardless of where they attend school. HBCUs are doing the impossible, every single day.
While we’re at it, we should be asking ourselves why HBCU leaders are forced to spend more time addressing funding issues than focusing on educating their students. How many of us are supporting HBCUs? How many of us attend them, are willing to send our children to them (and I mean outside of the top five)?
What are we doing, as a community, to maintain these institutions that created access to higher education when no one else would, and who made space for Black art, culture and activism first? It is not lost on me that many Black college grads, whether they graduate from HBCUs or not, are not in financial positions to endow HBCUs.
We earn less and have higher rates of debt than our counterparts. So until we are able to offer financial relief to these institutions that allow space and opportunity for them to say “no” to the likes of Trump, let’s remember not to hate the players, but to hate the game.
Josie Pickens is a griot, cultural critic and professor of English at Texas Southern University.