The Obama administration has recently announced that it will send several officials to speak at the commencement ceremonies for 11 historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) for this graduation season. Barack and Michelle Obama plan to speak at Hampton University and the University of Arkansas – Pine Bluff, while other officials will pepper the nation to speak on other campuses.
America’s historically black colleges have struggled more than most during the recent recession. Inadequately capitalized institutions such as Morris Brown found their utilities nearly being turned off, and other schools endured unsustainable budget cuts. Even Spelman College, the institution that I consider to be the best in the nation for young black women, had to slice its budget by $4.8 million dollars. The permanent black recession we typically endure became the Great Black Depression during the years 2009 and 2010.
States like Georgia and Mississippi are proposing permanent solutions to temporary problems by attempting to merge HBCUs into predominantly white institutions. This would be a crying shame, since the value of attending HBCUs is having the opportunity to learn with a collection of people who possess a similar background. While many HBCUs have given up on the idea of having African-American professors (in fact, several HBCU business schools don’t have any African-American faculty, especially males), the predominantly black student body can give students a level of comfort that is difficult to obtain at a majority-white institution.
President Obama recently signed an executive order increasing funding for HBCUs to $850 million over the next 10 years. The funds, however, are contingent upon Congress passing his 2011 fiscal year budget as is, which is highly unlikely. The president is getting major criticism for the expected size of the deficit, and HBCU funding may be a casualty of the in-fighting occurring on Capitol Hill.
Still, it is difficult to question Obama’s commitment to education. The president is proposing to double Pell Grant funding, which affects low income students. Fifty percent of all HBCU students get Pell Grants, so this would be an important move. Obama is also working to improve inner city schools, which suffer from unconstitutional funding differentials which amount to clear violations of human rights.
When it comes to Obama’s commitment to HBCUs, the final judgment is to wait and see. We must wait to see if the budget that the president is proposing actually passes in anything near its current form. We must also wait to see what happens over the next 10 years in which Obama’s $850 million in funding is set to apply. A decade is a long time to spread your expectations, and many institutions are in pain right now.
The president will be greeted heartily when he gives his commencement address, as will other members of his administration. Relative to past presidents, Obama is doing more than others to help these struggling institutions, so I would argue that he really wants to help them. But with the great economic challenges of HBCUs, I encourage all of us to remember that it is not acceptable to have a two-tiered society, in which a leading HBCU (Howard University) has an endowment of $524 million, while the leading white university (Harvard University) has an endowment of $36.9 billion.
The fact that the top white university has an endowment that is more than 70 times that of the best-funded black university is something that our nation has come to expect and accept. The truth, however, is that this huge differential in funding is part of the 400-year old legacy of economic inequality which continues to exist in America.
While President Obama is certainly not expected to solve a 400-year old problem by himself, the expectation is on all of us to re-evaluate America as the nation it is meant to be, not the nation that it is. In the words of Winston Churchill, “It’s not enough that we do our best; sometimes we have to do what’s required.”
It is clear that President Obama is doing his best when it comes to HBCUs. He has incrementally increased funding for these institutions and seems unashamed to share his support for them in public. But when it comes to our nation’s universities, we must also focus on doing what is required to ending educational inequality in America, and reaffirming our fundamental commitment to human rights.