Several days ago, I attended a “listening session” at the White House with eighty Historically Black College and University (HBCUs) presidents and chancellors. The session was billed as “an opportunity to engage agency leaders who interface with our nations gems.” The opportunity was also a chance to advocate for the next chapter of federal support for our distinguished Colleges and Universities. In the days that have passed, there has been much ado about someone sitting on a couch, suggestions of presidents getting duped, questions about who fell for the okey doke, and whether or not this was the ultimate bait and switch.
Not surprisingly since the visit, many HBCU presidents have been vocal about their impression of these meetings at the White House, which were coordinated as an opportunity by President and CEO Lezli Baskerville (NAFEO), President and CEO Johnny C. Taylor, Jr. (TMCF) and President and CEO Micheal Lomax (UNCF) as a way to advocate for our institutions. The concerns shared by the vocal presidents included observations regarding the amount of time allotted to speak, changes to the itinerary, the tone of the President’s press release that announced the Executive Order, whether or not this was an authentic engagement or simply a photo opportunity for the Trump Administration. When we were invited to participate, we were informed of logistics for the visit, of which included a scheduled conversation with senior officials. The conversation did occur with only seven out of the 15 Presidents giving remarks on behalf of the entire HBCU community. I think it’s important to note, each president was given 1-2 minutes to speak. Not surprisingly, none of my colleagues stayed within the allotted time, which is understandable considering their passion, expertise, and insight as leaders. To express the magnitude of our visit, Vice President Mike Pence, Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, and other senior cabinet officials, attended and provided greetings, pledged their support for HBCUs, and reaffirmed the assertion made by the President and others that we are an immediate priority for the Trump Administration.
As the days followed, there have been questions regarding our visit, our integrity, and a philosophical debate of whether we should have attended. Speaking for myself, I can live with these mischaracterizations, attacks on our integrity, and the lazy research used to rage against our decisions to attend the meeting. To many of us, the purpose of participating in this meeting was to promote our institutions, in my case, Wilberforce University. I believe HBCU presidents have come to this work because of our clear desire to serve our community. Sometimes serving the community comes with making unpopular decisions. As a United States Marine, I have been taught to lead from the front, which limits your exposure from the background noise and distractions in the rear, which invariably will impede forward progression.
Our visit was an important first step to what we hope to be a deep and true commitment to uplift our institutions. What will happen next from this Administration, to address our under-funded and under-resourced institutions, is the right question. The visit to the White House also reminded me of how much work there is to be done in educating others about HBCUs. Perceptions of our institutions became clearer as a result of this meeting. Every step along the way, we who believe in our HBCUs must remind the world that we have time and again produced some of the best and brightest graduates, even under less than desirable conditions. That racism and segregation, created us, but excellence defines us.
I, as the 21st President of Wilberforce University, went to the White House to remind them of our venerable institution. Regardless of my political affiliation or religious beliefs, the trust that has been instilled in me as president, guided my reasoning for making the trip.
As I reflect on my time at the White House, I see these meetings as an important step in educating our nation’s leaders on the legacy of HBCU’s as well as the value our institutions provide to our community, the nation, and the world. After our interactions, I am more confident that more White House staff members have greater insight about our institution’s contributions. With time, ferocious and unrelenting advocacy, it is my hope that our institutions will finally receive an equitable share of federal allocations, research grants, and government contracts. It is because of my commitment to the Wilberforce family, that I will continue to advocate for resources of which we are rightfully entitled to receive/obtain. After attending this meeting, I am sure that time will be the only true judge regarding the level of support we receive from The Trump Administration. I also have certainty that within this Administration we have a tireless advocate for our institutions in Omarosa Manigault, a three-time HBCU graduate.
Lastly, the coverage we received via such news outlets as the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and CNN is important as we continue the process of advocating for and educating about HBCUs contributions to the world, showcasing our extraordinary students, and guiding our institutions into the future. Many of us attended because of our commitment to our institutions and because we are clear that we need to voice what we believe will make our country greater, while simultaneously challenging this great nation to live up to her promise for all.
Herman J. Felton, Jr.