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On HBCUs, White House Moves From Disregard to Dismantling

Not so long ago, historically black colleges and universities were just a thorn in the side of the Obama administration. We will soon long for those days, because signs of the administrative shift from disregard to attempts at dismantling HBCUs, are growing in frequency and impact seemingly every year.
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Not so long ago, historically black colleges and universities were just a thorn in the side of the Obama administration. We will soon long for those days, because signs of the administrative shift from disregard to attempts at dismantling HBCUs, are growing in frequency and impact seemingly every year.

The Department of Education last week appropriated more than $171 million to colleges and universities nationwide to bolster college access and equity for low-income and minority students. Several dozens of colleges and universities received First in the World grants to increase S.T.E.M. professional development for minorities, or smaller grants aimed at supporting Alaskans, Native Americans, Pacific Islanders, African-Americans and Hispanics.

Of those dozens, just three HBCUs -- Fayetteville State University, Hampton University and Prairie View A&M University, collectively received just over $3 million in federal support. Hampton's FITW grant accounted for $3.5 million, while FSU and PVAMU received less than $250,000 each.

It would be easy to make the case that HBCUs should have received the lion's share of the $171 million, but that would be doing HBCUs a great disservice in addressing their generational funding disparities. Howard University alone receives more than $230 million annual in federal support -- a regrettably low number for the nation's flagship institution serving the underserved and underrepresented, who typically fall into these categories after being marginalized by their race and/or economic status.

The White House has not matched resources with rhetoric, and its getting worse. For every HBCU Student All-Star that is named by the White House Initiative on HBCUs, there are hundreds of students denied the opportunity to matriculate or complete a degree at an HBCU due to a lack of financial aid. For every line of support for HBCUs and their students uttered by Education Secretary Arne Duncan, policy and funding consistently makes him, and those who echo his sentiments, liars.

For every chart made by federal officials illustrating HBCU incompetence, mismanagement and waste at administrative levels, several charts which could show the ties between funding disparities and severe understaffing and inadequate technology infrastructure for HBCU operations go unmade. The disparities have existed since the inception of the HBCU concept, but for the first time in history, we have had to reconcile the dissonance of typical HBCU neglect with a president of our hue, our voice and our generational dreams.

To be fair, it hasn't been easy for President Obama, either. It was just a few years ago that he faced the peculiar task of having to show support for HBCUs, without giving his political enemies the impression that the black president was being unnecessarily favorable to black colleges. Obama, who did not grow up near, attend or work in any region with any black colleges, was forced early into realizing that HBCUs were a dormant, yet powerful piece of mobilizing key allies in the Congressional Black Caucus and blue states for support of his most urgent issues.

He worked hard to feign concern for black colleges, despite having no one on his cabinet, no one in his inner circle, with any ties to or experience with black colleges. He navigated it well by using the adoration of black students and leaders earned from his historic election, floating a carefully crafted myth about increases in federal loans to low-income students and calling it additional support for HBCUs, done by way of a willing salesman in then-White House Initiative on HBCUs Executive Director and current Morehouse College President, John Silvanus Wilson.

But the president couldn't hide his coolness towards HBCUs for long. Before his first term could end, his Department of Education orchestrated and authorized the great Pell Grant/PLUS Loan debacle of 2011. Two years later, he announced plans to tie federal aid funding to a new rating system, one which will punish schools for low graduation rates, student loan defaults, alumni employment rates, and other measures which fly in the face of the HBCU mission and profile.

And here is the latest sign that the highest offices in the nation do not want HBCUs around -- millions of dollars going out in an effort to stimulate innovation and opportunities to every type of school except those where the funding is needed most, and, according to data, where the dollars would be best spent.

The other side of this equation has been the easy out given to the Obama administration with the growing movement towards support for Minority Serving Institutions, or, MSIs. Three little letters are overtaking the Big Four in the attention and support from federal and state resources, with eager legislators quick to find a way out of funding black colleges but not taking support away from minority students.

The ironies of this movement? The hub for the research and talking points on MSI support is based at a northern, highly selective white institution, with most of its work centering on the outcomes and examples of excellence based at Black colleges. And yet, these same colleges, which totally fit the MSI billing, have found no traction from the center to advance the national HBCU narrative, or secure transformative funding for a historically black campus from federal sources.

In the end, there aren't enough HBCU students to boycott or march for long enough to reverse this trend. There isn't enough wealth among HBCU graduates to stand in the gaps opened wide by federal and state neglect. And HBCU leaders have yet to figure out how to plead their own cases for existence through black media.

At all levels, we're all screwed up. And the people at the very top of political and financial food chains who know well our own lack of passion, knowledge, involvement or power to change the course of our institutions, are ready to deal the final death blows to our timeless institutions.