A Seat at the Table - Higher Education
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A Seat at the Table

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by Zebulon Miletsky


As soon as Donald Trump was elected President, the tacit comparisons to 1930s Germany began. Many people quoted—via memes—the famous line by Martin Niemöller, a Protestant pastor who spoke out against Adolf Hitler and who paid for it by spending the last seven years of his life in a concentration camp.

Dr. Zebulon Miletsky

While some of those doomsday scenarios may have represented a more cynical point of view, it does not seem so far-fetched today. “Give him a chance”, people said, “He is our President.” However, events as they have unfolded since Trump’s ascension to power have not given anyone solace in the face of such historically laden circumstances. To anyone with even the most basic appreciation for history, the parallels to the 1930s are obvious and unsettling.

Today, the Ku Klux Klan expresses itself openly—not only with words, but with violence. Black lives are terrorized daily; bomb threats to Jewish Community Centers have reached record levels; and calls to reinstitute “Stop & Frisk” are being reissued. Should it matter that today it’s called ICE and not Gestapo? Like in those troubling times, people of conscience have begun to organize to protect others from being rounded up. Today, we do have something called a “resistance.”

The historical echoes are chilling. And without going into all the parallels (there are many) “Professor Watchlists” for so-called “anti-American” scholars have drawn increased attention thanks to the so-called “alt-right” and White supremacist blogs and news services which cause them to go viral. Left-leaning or progressive academics (especially scholars of color) have been picketed by College Republican conservative groups. Most recently, Dr. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, a professor at Princeton University, received death threats after Fox News aired a clip of her commencement speech at Hampshire College. Taylor canceled scheduled public talks as a result. A petition initiated by the Princeton University Department of African-American Studies and a Facebook post by #BlackLivesMatter in solidarity with Taylor went viral.

But unlike the alleged rebukes of conservative speakers, such as last year’s flap over the authors of the controversial book The Bell Curve, and the expected hue and cry about abuses of academic freedom from the right, Yamahtta Taylor’s case did not garner as many headlines as it probably should have.

Besides these egregious examples of individual harassment, there has also been what might be called “institutional harassment.” In these cases, either college presidents of color—Black leaders of predominately white institutions, or in a recent case, presidents of historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). In a “post-civil rights” society, the question before these leaders is how to lead Black institutions of higher education in the Trump era—dealing with a government that is hostile to Black people.

In a time where people loudly question the need for HBCUs —and see it as an example of reverse racism—why do we have historically Black institutions? Why is there a Black history month? We don’t have a White history month? The rise of White student unions on college campuses tells the tale. What is the role for HBCUs in a time of #BlackLivesMatter? How do we get a seat at the table?

There were early signs of trouble. When the Talladega College Tornado Marching Band agreed to perform at then President-elect Donald Trump’s inaugural parade despite protests by some alumni and members of the public, it became the only historically black college or university (HBCU) to participate. The outcry was deafening. Or when Betsy DeVos, Trump’s education secretary was invited to be the keynote speaker at Bethune-Cookman University, the students booed, with many even turning their backs in protest over shouts from then President Edison O. Jackson who stated, through loud jeers from the audience, “If this behavior continues, your degrees will be mailed to you. Choose which way you want to go.” Jackson resigned from the institution citing financial woes soon after. Let’s just say the situation with DeVos probably did not help.

There is a general misunderstanding (call it a selective revisionism, not “fake news”) among the Trump administration about the historical mission of HBCUs in America–indeed of African-American history itself. At a White House meeting between President Trump and the leaders of HBCUs held in the Oval Office on Feb. 27, the President made promises to the leaders of those venerable institutions—promises about financial relief for the many HBCUs who have seen dips in recent years in their overall fundraising and giving. The next day, Feb. 28, Trump signed an executive order, extending the life of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities, moving it out of the Department of Education, where it had been since Jimmy Carter first established it in 1979, to its new home in the Oval Office.

After that now infamous meeting, Betsy DeVos, Trump’s controversial Secretary of Education, used the opportunity to make a false comparison to the charter school debate now raging in education, wrongheadedly describing the origins of HBCUs as having “started from the fact that there were too many students in America who did not have equal access to education. Living proof that when more options are provided to students, they are afforded greater access and greater quality” and in another statement praising HBCUs for “identifying a system that wasn’t working” and taking it “upon themselves to provide the solution” from the outset of their founding.”

Dr. John S. Wilson, former president of Morehouse College and head of the White House Initiative during the Obama years, responded to DeVos’ statement, explaining, “HBCUs were not created because the four million newly freed Blacks were unhappy with the choices they had. They were created because they had no choices at all. That is not just a very important distinction, it is profoundly important. Why? Because, if one does not understand the crippling and extended horrors of slavery, then how can one really understand the subsequent history and struggle of African Americans, or the current necessities and imperatives that grow out of that history and struggle?”

However, in our eagerness to occupy what appeared to be a seat at the table, what we may have missed in all the uproar is the deal left on the table–a deal that if accepted, could very well change the nature of HBCUs in this country. DeVos’ cryptic statements about HBCUs may have obscured a potentially ulterior motive—to turn HBCUs into the charter schools of higher education. Before you say “No”, consider this. Trump promised massive funds for HBCUs. However, no money has been forthcoming. If #BlackTwitter is any indication, it is never coming. But it just may be. The aforementioned funds may come from some of the sources that have bankrolled charter schools and have flooded a growing number of districts (some that are only charter school now, such as New Orleans as well as virtual education) with private donor money (and in most cases, public money). So much money in fact, that many public schools find it hard to compete. It is, to borrow the title of Noliwe Rooks’ compelling new work, “Privatization, Segregation, and the End of Public Education.”

Although there were already issues brewing at Morehouse—financial and otherwise—Wilson was most likely let go as president due to the White House meeting. He was after all, “the only HBCU president to boldly speak out after Donald Trump summoned the heads of HBCUs to the White House to sit quietly for a round of Betsy DeVos insults and pose for Kellyanne Conway’s Snapchat,” according to The Root.

However, in a letter to students explaining that reports of his ouster were “not accurate”, Wilson stated, “while many of the HBCU presidents raised the expectations of their constituents, nothing much came out of the summit.” Although Wilson stepped down in June when his current contract ended, the speculation of many observers at the time was that his contract was not renewed because of the Trump handling. And although Wilson was defiant in his defense of the meeting, the damage was done. It was a public relations disaster.

However, what Wilson may not have realized (nor most of the leaders gathered at that fateful meeting) or maybe he did—is that what DeVos may have been proposing was that HBCUs will be the latest target of Trump’s obsession with privatization and as such, HBCUs could enter into the fractious debate around public vs. charters—thus underscoring the current crisis in Black education. There must be some reason Trump placed the White House initiative under the Oval Office?

Wilson was one of the only Black college presidents brave enough to speak out against Trump after the meeting. In his efforts to get HBCUs a seat at the table, he may have sacrificed his position. But at the same time, perhaps Wilson understood something we didn’t. If HBCUs accept this funding, we may sacrifice ours.

Dr. Zebulon Miletsky is an assistant professor of Africana Studies at Stony Brook University.