Trump Struggles to Find a Leader for White House Initiative on Black Colleges

The Trump administration has made a number of public overtures to black colleges in its first six months. Chief among them: signing an executive order in February that would move the White House Initiative on historically black colleges into the West Wing, from the Department of Education.

Many people, including students on HBCU campuses, saw the event as little more than a photo opportunity and worried that the black-college leaders who attended events around the signing were being used as puppets. But others saw opportunity and signs that the administration was willing to work with black colleges.

After President Trump signed the order, his administration turned its attention to appointing an executive director to oversee the initiative. But filling that post has proved to be difficult.

The executive director serves as the main advocate in a presidential administration for policies that benefit historically black colleges. Black colleges have been sorely underfunded — and the primary function of the position is to advocate for more money, in addition to helping the colleges speak out against policies that might harm them, said Steve D. Mobley Jr., an assistant professor of higher education at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa. The last four administrations have had an executive director in the position by July of their inaugural year in office.

A White House spokesman wrote in an email that the administration has “several finalists for this position” and that no final decision had been made.

Jarrett L. Carter Sr., an alumnus of Morgan State University and founder of HBCU Digest, a website for news and commentary about historically black colleges, said that he was one of the finalists for the position but that he recently withdrew his candidacy. In an interview, he told The Chronicle that the administration contacted him in late May to gauge his interest.

Mr. Carter, who is a registered Democrat, was intrigued by the opportunity at first. He had seen some people in the Trump administration express genuine interest in doing positive things for black colleges. Those individuals, he said, included Omarosa Manigault, a senior White House aide, and Ja’Ron Smith, a policy adviser — both of whom are alumni of historically black colleges. “I had some very positive conversations with them,” Mr. Carter said.

Recent news reports, however, have raised several questions about the administration’s commitment to black colleges and federal programs related to HBCUs.

For instance, The Wall Street Journal recently detailed oversight and repayment issues associated with the Capital Financing program, which helps black colleges repair, renovate, and build new facilities. In May, President Trump raised alarms when he suggested in a signing statement that the program may be unconstitutional. The administration later walked back that statement in the face of widespread criticism.

The long-simmering issues with those federal programs are not new and have spanned several administrations, Mr. Carter said. As executive director, he continued, he would have needed answers to questions about those programs, and would have needed to provide a timetable for working to resolve them. He was unsure that he — or the administration writ large — had a good answer.

“I didn’t want to be in that position, because once you say yes, and once they announce you, the White House is hands-off on answering anything,” he said. “If you’re not ready with an answer, or at a least a timetable for when you’re going to have an answer, you’re at a disadvantage.”

Johnny C. Taylor Jr., president of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, told The Chronicle that he was impressed that the administration was considering Mr. Carter. “That is a highly unusual candidate,” he said. “If they’re considering someone like that, good for them. That means they’re doing their homework.”

The fund was among several organizations who suggested candidates for executive director, at least two of whom have interviewed for the position.

Mr. Taylor stressed that his organization, and others, are hopeful that the administration can have someone in the role soon, as the annual convention for HBCUs is on the horizon. “We would like to get this person in there as quickly as possible so they can be a part of the curriculum and agenda development.”

As for Mr. Carter, he hopes advocates can see the potential benefit of this moment for black colleges.

“What I’d like the HBCU community to realize is that this is a Tale of Two Cities moment,” he said. “This is the best of times, and this is the worst of times.” The administration is open to working on issues that black colleges face, he said, “but at the same time, they just got here.”

It’s no secret that many in the black community are dissatisfied with the Trump administration and its trajectory so far, Mr. Carter said. “But I hope that people will strategically see the opportunities that are available.”

Source: The Chronicle in Higher Education