By Johnny C. Taylor, Jr. (President and CEO, Thurgood Marshall College Fund)
Last month, after speaking with the White House about a few calls, we had received I was asked to get a sense of where our member-schools stood on the upcoming National HBCU Week Conference. After a call with a number of our 47 member-school presidents and chancellors the overwhelming consensus was to advise that the White House consider postponing the annual National HBCU Week Conference organized by the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities. I believed then and I am now affirmed that it is still the best choice when we objectively look at the current national events that could detract from the real needs of the HBCU community. It is no secret that, under my leadership at TMCF, we have taken a position of finding ways to have a positive meaningful, transparent working relationship with the current administration on all issues pertaining to HBCUs. I have been outspoken in my support of the significant meetings, policy positions and plans that have a direct impact on our member-intuitions. Like most of us, we often have a difference of opinion with even those closest to us, so though the Administration may disagree with our call for postponing this event, our commitment to finding common ground to work together on behalf of HBCUs has not and will not change.
This conference is important to all of our HBCU students, campus leaders and the millions of people who live in the campus communities, all of which are searching for these schools to be equitably funded and supported by public and private partners. It is more than a time for leaders, alumni and other stakeholders to convene and network; when developed to the specific interests of our institutions, the conference is a valuable tool for exposure of HBCU strengths before powerful actors in our nation’s legislative and corporate circles.
Traditionally, the White House Initiative on HBCUs Executive Director, in consultation with the President’s Board of Advisors on HBCUs has planned the event. Regrettably, as of August 2017 neither has been appointed. TMCF was asked to submit names and provide general input on the conference, but my position has always been, there needed to be an Executive Director in place by July 9th. There is no doubt that there are people in the White House that are committed to the advancement and support of HBCUs during the Trump Administration. Two of them are actually HBCU graduates, so I applaud the fact that they are advocating for our community, behind closed doors.
The conference should not be cancelled. We need this annual event to bring all of the stakeholders together around a specific, strategic agenda of substantive action for the entire Black College Community. September 17-19, 2017 is just not the right time. We asked the Trump Administration to consider postponing the conference, because there is legitimate concern that some may want to use this event to protest, boycott or much worse, refuse to work with the Trump Administration and the Republican-controlled Congress. Let me be very clear, with the fragile condition of some of our HBCUs, now is not the time for us to retreat, now is not the time for us to move off the path of strategic and effective engagement to seek meaningful solutions for HBCUs. Our students and faculty are watching and want us to solidify continued support from the entire Trump Administration for HBCUs. They are seeking more than positive affirmations that many in the political space try to give. We need and deserve policies, which reflect the service our schools provide in spurring industrial diversity, political autonomy and economic progress.
No one wants HBCUs to become a footnote at a national event, which could draw attention from many types of groups seeking opportunities to advance a message totally independent of higher education or HBCU advocacy. Our students and our leaders deserve more than to be a catalyst for liberal or conservative groups to use the conference as an agenda amplifier; especially when HBCUs have hard work ahead in securing partnerships to promote and to bolster institutional strengths in STEM, national defense, public health, secondary education, entrepreneurship and business management. I was pleased to hear Secretary of State Tillerson talk about the value of HBCU students interning and working at the State Department. TMCF has great partnerships with the United States Department of Agriculture, the Department of Defense, the Central Intelligence Agency and many others.
I can understand why some White House officials want to continue the conference. I applaud their firm commitment to maintaining a laser focus on the HBCU agenda, even when the prospects for controversy are growing around it. That commitment is a sign of true leadership and advocacy in which we should all be proud, because it is rare. It is the kind of commitment for which TMCF has advocated over the past 30 years, and which we are proud to say has resulted in bipartisan support of our scholarship and talent pipeline programs which have benefited thousands of students from our 47 member-institutions and beyond.
The best course of action is to pause for just a moment, get the Executive Director and Advisory Board in place to plan out a short term and long term strategy for the Trump Administration and Black College Community to be convened for this critically important conference, we all want to be successful, substantive, and impactful. I have no doubt President Trump, his administration and the 47-member schools I represent as the President & CEO of TMCF, have a genuine desire to get this right, so that HBCUs can survive and thrive.
Johnny C. Taylor, Jr. is the President & CEO of Thurgood Marshall College Fund (TMCF), the largest organization exclusively representing the Black College Community. Prior to joining TMCF, he spent many years as a successful corporate executive and attorney. Follow him on Twitter at @JohnnyCTaylorJr.