WASHINGTON — Despite some calls for the White House to cancel its summit Monday with presidents of black colleges, several of the leaders plan to show up and make sure their concerns are heard.
“It’s important that we be at the table,” said David Beckley, president of Rust College, the oldest historically black college and university in Mississippi. “We have to be there to express our concerns. I’m willing to try again. I’m not sure how many more times I’ll go — based on results of this trip.”
The summit comes just months after more than 80 presidents of historically black colleagues and universities (HBCUs), including Beckley, attended a meeting with President Trump at the White House.
It also comes a month after Trump’s comments about violence in Charlottesville, Va., sparked by demonstrations by white nationalists and members of the Ku Klux Klan angered many African Americans and prompted some black lawmakers to call on the White House to postpone or cancel the summit.
They also complain the administration has not lived up to its promises, including naming the head of the White House Initiative on HBCUs.
“I’m not surprised that many if not most of the college presidents declined to come,’’ Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-La., chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus said in a recent call. “What I’d rather see besides a conference and a fly-in day is some substantive polices to help these schools with their scholarships, with their campuses, with their infrastructure, with their teachers … I don’t think that you need a conference in D.C. in order to do that.’’
Some HBCU presidents may not attend because of confusion over whether the summit would be postponed or held at all, said John K. Pierre, chancellor of the Southern University Law Center in Baton Rouge, La.
Others, he said, may boycott the summit.
“No one is going to obviously say why they did not go,’’ said Pierre, who is attending other HBCU conferences and won’t make the summit. “In some cases, there was not any clear vision of what will be going on.”
Pierre said, among other things, Trump’s comments about Charlottesville and his proposed cuts to some higher education programs may have concerned some presidents.
“All those factors together sort of contributed to a feeling of uneasiness,’’ he said.
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The annual conference run by the White House Initiative on HBCUs is billed as an opportunity for college officials to meet with federal agencies, businesses, philanthropic groups and others.
Trump, who hosted the presidents at a meeting in February, had vowed to make support for HBCUs “an absolute priority.”
He also signed an executive order elevating a federal HBCU initiative to a White House project. White House officials are also expected to announce the new director of the initiative Monday.
There are more than 100 HBCUs across the country, most of them in the South. HBCU presidents have raised concerns about aging infrastructures, declining enrollments and other financial woes.
In addition to year-round Pell Grants, they have pushed for increased funding for Pell Grants, infrastructure projects, work study programs and federal contracts to black colleges.
Quinton Ross, the president-elect of Alabama State University, said it’s important that he and his colleagues engage with officials in Washington.
“The one thing that all of our colleges should focus on is sustainability,’’ said Ross. “We know that dealing with our partners in Washington, regardless of whether it be our congressional delegation or whether it be interacting with the different federal agencies, I think it’s necessary to get the information on how to access the various types of funding, but then to also articulate our needs and our positions on various issues.’’
Ross said he doesn’t have any preconceived notions about what will come out of the summit, but he’s hopeful there’s “some intentional and deliberate discussion.’’
“I’m not necessarily concerned about taking a picture, I’m more concerned about the information that will be invaluable to us and how we can garner new resources and additional resources to the university,” he said.
But Rep. Alma Adams, co-chair of the bipartisan HBCU Caucus, called for the White House to cancel the summit. She said not much has happened since the presidents attended the White House meeting.
“It would be more productive to hear from the president directly or from his secretary of education about what progress they are making on the HBCUs’ request before asking presidents to come back to Washington for another photo-op,” Adams, a Democrat from North Carolina, said in a statement.
Adams instead has invited the presidents to four HBCU-related events at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation Inc.’s annual legislative conference next week.
Beckley, who plans to attend the CBC conference as well, said he didn’t support canceling the summit.
“The conference is not about necessarily the White House, it’s about working with the federal agencies,’’ he said. “This is not to be a show-and-tell, but a working session to talk about issues and items that we’re concerned about.”
He said he’s hoping for more from the summit than the White House meeting earlier this year, which he said “got to be more show-and-tell than substantive.”
Rep. Bradley Byrne, R-Ala., a co-chair of the HBCU Caucus, said the conference should happen. He won’t be able to attend because the House is out next week and he’ll be hosting town halls and other events in his district.
“Congressman Byrne is a strong supporter of HBCUs, and he believes we should celebrate them every week of the year,” Seth Morrow, a spokesman for Byrne.
For some presidents, there could be backlash on their campuses if they attend, Pierre said.
“I’m sure they measured the temperature on their campuses,’’ he said
Grambling State University President Rick Gallot said September is the worst time to hold a summit for academics. He said it’s the beginning of a semester and the kickoff of football season.
“I’ve got to take care of home first,” he said. “With everything going on it didn’t get to be a serious consideration because I could not carve out the time to be anywhere other than here in Louisiana.”
Gallot attended the White House meeting earlier this year and a congressional conference that same week hosted by Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., and Rep. Mark Walker, R-N.C.
Gallot said it helps HBCU presidents to build relationships with officials in Washington.
“As efforts are being made to try to establish a relationship with the White House, it’s certainly a worthwhile endeavor,” he said. “You always want to have a relationship with the White House no matter who the officeholder is. But that remains to be seen what that relationship, if any, looks like.”
Follow Deborah Barfield Berry on Twitter: @dberrygannett
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