After "historic" meeting, HBCUs seem to be changing their tune about the deal with Trump

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The ink has dried on President Donald Trump's executive order that offers no additional funding to the nation's historically black colleges and universities — and elation among presidents and chancellors of those institutions has apparently cooled.

Signed Tuesday by Trump amid some pomp and circumstance, the executive order moved the White House Initiative on HBCUs out of the U.S. Department of Education and closer to the executive branch where the program would ideally receive better oversight. But these schools were not in dire need of an overseer — they need funding, David Wilson, president of the Morgan State University in Baltimore, said in recent letter to students, faculty and staff.

"There was great expectation that the executive order to be signed by the president would have an aspirational, numerical percentage goal for the federal agencies... to invest in HBCUs," Wilson wrote in the letter dated March 1. "However, as many of you know by now, the executive order signed by the president did not include any such goal, and I was disappointed by this omission."

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He isn't the only one: Morehouse College president John Silvanus Wilson Jr., no relation to the MSU president, said HBCU leaders were practically lured to the White House on Monday around the hype that Trump would one-up President Barack Obama's record of support to black colleges. Over seven years, the Obama administration invested $4 billion in HBCUs, although their share of overall funding for student Pell grants, infrastructure and other federal aid decreased.

"Many had high hopes about this [White House] meeting," the president of the Atlanta men's college said in a statement. "But, instead of the long-awaited executive order containing or signaling any of those outcomes, the key change is a symbolic shift... It is not possible to measure the impact of this gesture anytime soon, if ever."

In a phone interview Friday, Johnny Taylor Jr, president and CEO of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, a HBCU advocacy and scholarship organization, said he felt critics of the White House meeting were being disingenuous about the widely held expectations of an executive order.

"What this highlights for me is that there is a total misunderstanding of the process," Taylor said. " An executive order is not a budget. None of us who know how this works thought we were going to come away with a budgeted number.

"We have had a good first step," Taylor said. "The next stage is to wait for the [president's] budget."

HBCU leaders had asked the Trump administration to move the initiative out of the DOE purview into the White House and to steer at least 5% of higher education spending on grants and 10% of government contracts to their institutions. But before some of the leaders had seen the language of Trump executive order, they were calling Monday's Oval Office photo-op with the president and the listening sessions with Vice President Mike Pence, education secretary Betsy DeVos, and top White House aides Stephen Bannon and Kellyanne Conway, a "historic" achievement that evoked feelings of optimism among the group.

On Friday, Taylor said he was concerned that Trump administration officials would misread criticisms of the meeting and, in the end, abandon their spoken pledges to help HBCUs. "We worked really hard to get us at the table," he said. "So if you get to the table and you're complaining about the salad then, my God, we're not going to get to dessert."

White House counselor Kellyanne Conway takes smartphone pictures from couch in the Oval Office, as HBCU presidents gather for a photograph with President Donald Trump.Source: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
White House counselor Kellyanne Conway takes smartphone pictures from couch in the Oval Office, as HBCU presidents gather for a photograph with President Donald Trump.  Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

The meetings had been arranged by three advocacy organizations that have lobbied for the interests of HBCUs: the United Negro College Fund, the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education and TMCF. In a statement released after the meetings, the UNCF, which represents the bulk of the nation's HBCUs, acknowledged that Trump's executive order didn't go far enough.

"The president has set a high bar; however, we await the opportunity to see if the administration will meet their pledges, specifically as it pertains to funding for HBCUs," Michael Lomax, the UNCF president and CEO, said in a statement released Tuesday. "We must continue to work with the administration and with Congress to ensure that these historic institutions get both the recognition and the additional resources they deserve."

On Tuesday, Walter Kimbrough, president of Dillard University in New Orleans, was among the first HBCU presidents to speak critically of the executive order and the meetings. The brevity of Monday's listening session were a disappointment, he said. 

Morgan State University's David Wilson, who skipped the executive order signing ceremony and other HBCU meetings with members of Congress, said he will push the HBCU lobbying groups to deliver more than they promised would be delivered this week.

"We are calling on the White House and on Congress to make major strategic investments in [HBCUs] in order to execute and make the order meaningful," Wilson said in his letter.

March 3, 2017, 3:12 p.m. Eastern: This story has been updated.