For instance, that confusion could play out in the conversation around free or tuition-free college. On its website in a section devoted to policy priorities, for instance, TMCF lists “an expanded America’s College Promise Program,” a proposal by president Obama to make two years of community college free for some students. What if Trump doesn’t support tuition-free college? The candidate hasn’t released a higher-education plan, but what he has said about college affordability hinges on pushing schools to use their endowments to support students, not on eliminating tuition.
Dennard said he would “advocate for anything that is going to help our students,” before adding somewhat tersely and after a long pause, “I’m a GOP commentator. I was a member of the Republican party before Donald Trump. I’ll be a member of the Republican party after Donald Trump … and so my allegiance is to the party, if that makes sense. So, I mean, I think Ronald Reagan said as long as you agree with 80 percent, you know, I’m not going to toss you out because we disagree on 20. For me, I’m always going to be advocating for HBCUs.”
In an effort to show that even Democratic policymakers and TMCF have their differences, he pointed to Taylor’s disagreements with the Obama administration over things like Pell grants, adding, “I’m going to speak truth to power … but so far, Mr. Trump hasn’t put out a higher-education plan to critique.”
And in our conversation, Dennard gave Clinton’s team credit for including HBCUs in her campaign proposals. He said he was encouraged, too, by the fact that TMCF has met with both campaigns, including the Trump adviser Sam Clovis—meetings he called “very substantive, very positive.”
James Douglas, the interim dean and distinguished professor of law at the Thurgood Marshall School of Law at Texas Southern University, called Dennard’s new role “a sticky issue.”
“As long as he makes it clear that when he speaks, he’s speaking as a Trump supporter and not as a representative of the fund,” said Douglas, who’s also the current head of the Houston chapter of the NAACP. “I’m a lawyer, and I’m a believer in the Constitution. I don’t agree with his views, but just because he has a job doesn’t mean that he can’t have a political position different from mine.”
When I pressed Douglas on the nature of the job, specifically on the fact that both the role and Dennard’s position as a Republican commentator involve taking what could be very different viewpoints, Douglas said, “He’s got to make an effort. I think he’s got to take some extra steps to make sure people understand he’s speaking as an individual.”
Douglas said he hasn’t met Dennard but suspects he’s a “nice” guy. Douglas has socialized, he added, with the conservative African American Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas, who he also described as friendly, yet Douglas still wonders, he said, “How could you think that way?” He wishes Dennard weren’t a Trump supporter “but as far as politics, as far as his right to try to separate his politics from his work,” Douglas continued, “I have to support it.”