Morehouse College President Talks About HBCU Meeting With Trump

Mar 5, 2017
Originally published on March 5, 2017 8:00 pm
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Following up now on some other news from the White House, last week more than 60 presidents from historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs, met with President Trump in the Oval Office after meeting with Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. Now, those meetings have been the subject of a very great deal of social media commentary because of Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway's sitting position on a sofa and remarks by DeVos that some found historically inaccurate and insensitive.

But the substance of the meeting was President Trump's signing of an executive order moving the initiative on historically black colleges and universities from the Department of Education into the White House. But he didn't make any other specific commitments. And all of this has caused backlash on a number of HBCU campuses where critics say the meeting was little more than a photo op.

We wanted to know more so we called John Silvanus Wilson, Jr. He's the outgoing president of Morehouse College, and he's a former executive director of the White House Initiative on HBCUs. And he's with us now from Atlanta. President Wilson, thanks so much for speaking with us.

JOHN SILVANUS WILSON JR.: Thanks for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: So as a former director of the White House Initiative on HBCUs, you know that people were critical of President Obama's commitment to HBCUs, even though his administration extended some - what? - $3 billion more in funding than his predecessor had done. And you noted that there was some advanced buzz around this meeting with President Trump, some hopeful buzz. What was the hope - additional financial commitments, scholarship assistance - what?

WILSON: Yeah, I think you're right about that. The hope was around funding. And the two categories of funding everyone was hopeful about was either funding to individuals through Pell Grants, which Barack Obama doubled while in office, or institutional funding through Title III. And so, you know, with advanced billing of the meeting, you know - (unintelligible). We're going to have a historic meeting, and this president's going to outdo all of the others. We thought that those would be the terms of success.

MARTIN: In a statement on the meeting that you published for the broader Morehouse community, you seemed to express some disappointment with the meeting. You said that it's not possible to measure the impact of this gesture anytime soon if ever. How did the meetings fall short in your view?

WILSON: I just think, you know, having been at the White House in the Obama administration, I was kind of well-aware that you can't do everything in a single meeting, nor is it reasonable to expect you to do everything in an initial meeting. So I kind of thought this meeting would be more symbolic than anything else. Nevertheless, hopes were legitimately high.

The turnout was enormous. I'm not sure we've gotten that many presidents to show up at any meeting. So I think that's how the expectation was built up. I do want to say though that, yes, I did write a statement to my community. Never there or anywhere else did I say we got played. That is not my spirit. Those are not my words. And I don't think it was merely a photo op. It was the beginning of a conversation. And I believe there is still time for this administration to come through with some funding to HBCUs.

MARTIN: But there has been some pushback from students at HBCUs around the country who saw the meeting itself as essentially a photo op allowing the president to show that he's reaching out to a constituency that did not support his candidacy but without actually offering very much. What are your thoughts about that?

WILSON: Oh, I just think it's premature to make a judgment about this administration vis-a-vis black colleges. I do understand that there is a lot of criticism from a number of constituencies and stakeholders. It is pretty clear, Michel, that during the primaries, during the presidential campaign, you know, for the last basically two years, Donald Trump and his campaign have been associated with a set of values that were problematic for a lot of people, and they've run contrary to how a lot of us define progress.

So the notion of his outreach, you know, just coming into office, to HBCUs, was out of step with a lot of his messaging, so it was surprising to a lot of people. And a lot of people were, you know, cynical and skeptical about it. But, again, I say while the big announcement did not come in this two-day meeting, there is still time for it to come. And I'm not yet cynical or judgmental. We'll see if they're going to come through.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, you were kind enough to speak with us at NPR when you were first appointed as president of Morehouse. It was announced in January that the board wouldn't be renewing your contract as president, so your tenure comes to an end in June.

When we first spoke, I noted that about 17 of the 105 HBCUs had openings or were searching for a new president. It was a very challenging time to take on this leadership position. So what's your takeaway from your tenure?

WILSON: Well, you know, I'm not finished assessing my takeaway yet, Michel. That's going to take some time. I do have to say, though, that I still hold to the view that a subset of our HBCUs ought to go on a pathway to surge in strength and close the gap between most HBCUs and the stronger institutions in the higher-ed sector - small, liberal arts colleges. And by that, I mean get larger endowments, get more giving from the private philanthropic community and just get a better physical infrastructure, academic infrastructure, pay faculty more, aid students more. There's not an HBCU that is as strong as, say, Swarthmore or Grinnell or Harvard. And that gap is pretty wide. It has widened over the last 30 years, and it's time for a gap closure.

MARTIN: That's John Silvanus Wilson, Jr. He's the outgoing president of Morehouse College. He's a former director of the White House Initiative on HBCUs, and he was one of the attendees at the meeting of the HBCU presidents with President Trump in the Oval Office last week. And he was kind enough to join us now from Atlanta. President Wilson, thanks so much for speaking with us.

WILSON: Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.