The Trump administration’s relationship with historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) started with a lot of flash and a little substance. Dozens of black educators in the Oval Office for a photo opportunity with the president. An executive order on black colleges that didn’t live up to expectations. And a host of unforced errors.
Black college leaders and their advocates, though, remained cautiously optimistic. After all, they weren’t exactly thrilled with the Obama years, and at least the early months of the Trump-era had placed a spotlight on the often-neglected institutions. There were a number of public overtures. The administration didn’t propose adding funding for the institutions—which have been historically underfunded, and have requested more federal support—but it wasn’t suggesting cutting funds either, and it supported a bipartisan budget deal that increased HBCU spending. And, above all else, they thought, they had the president’s ear—and that was due in large part to Omarosa Manigault-Newman’s presence in the West Wing.
That direct line was cut in December when Omarosa—a black college graduate herself—was unceremoniously fired from the White House. And in her new book, the former reality star and senior White House aide is inflaming what was already a tense relationship between between black colleges and the administration.
One of the primary targets of her attacks is Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. She criticizes DeVos for her showing during a commencement address at Bethune-Cookman University, a black college in Daytona Beach, Florida, where the secretary was raucously booed—and claims the secretary questioned the students’ ability to comprehend her agenda. She also blames the secretary for the stop-and-start confusion around the White House’s annual conference for black colleges.
"This disgraced former White House employee is peddling lies for profit,” Elizabeth Hill, a spokeswoman for the department told me in a statement. “The book is a joke as are the false claims she’s making about Secretary DeVos.” Regardless of whether Manigault-Newman is telling the truth, however, her eventful departure from the White House has left black colleges with an open question: Who will fight for them now in the Trump administration?
The natural answer for that question is the executive director for the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges, Johnathan Holifield, who was appointed to the position just short of a year ago, and whose office Trump moved into the West Wing by executive order. (Though, it should be noted, the rest of the employees who work on the White House Initiative are in the Education Department.) And there are other areas of the administration’s agenda that HBCUs generally approve of, such as the department’s attempt to roll back Obama-era regulations that cracked down on predatory behavior by for-profit colleges—which could have also ensnared some black colleges.
But in the dozens of conversations that I’ve had with black college presidents over the last several months, the common refrain is that their engagements in Washington were never really about the White House, or the administration. Yes, a good relationship with the presidential administration is important, but they say they were always more interested in a good relationship with Congress. Overlooked amidst coverage of the photo opportunity and missteps of that February was what many black college leaders saw as a successful event with lawmakers from both sides of the aisle, led by Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina. The second-annual such meeting was held in February of this year.
That relationship with Congress has been paying off for the institutions. In the February budget deal, lawmakers authorized the Education Department to forgive $330 million of debt related to rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina that was incurred by four black colleges in Louisiana and Mississippi. The administration forgave that debt in March.
And last week, Representative Alma Adams of North Carolina, chair of the bipartisan HBCU caucus, led a summit championing diversity in tech at North Carolina A&T University, a black college in Greensboro. The convention brought together more than 35 companies ranging from Uber to Dell to Facebook and dozens of HBCUs to discuss partnerships and ways to strengthen diversity in the companies’ hiring pipeline.
There will undoubtedly continue to be tension between the administration, black colleges, and—perhaps most notably—the students on HBCU campuses. And the claims in Manigault-Newman’s book may further strain that relationship. But black colleges believe working with the federal government can pay off, and in some ways during the Trump era, it already has—Omarosa or no Omarosa.