Trump-ism is Coming to an HBCU Near You, and Paul Quinn President Talks Pandemic Strategic Planning

Trump-ism is Coming to an HBCU Near You

In less than a month, governors in two beet-red Republican-led states have cut historic checks to public and private historically black institutions.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis recently signed legislation awarding more than $92 million to public flagship Florida A&M University, and more than $30 million to Bethune-Cookman University, Edward Waters College and Florida Memorial University — increased appropriations for each of the four institutions from prior years.

In South Carolina, Governor Henry McMaster signed off on more than five percent of a $48 million payout to the state through the federal Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund to be awarded to the state’s eight historically black colleges and universities.

DeSantis and McMaster remain policy and cultural loyalists to President Donald Trump, and they are both clear disciples of Trump’s revision of the GOP playbook on race relations throughout the south — take care of black people and silence the minority voice when opposition arises to culture wars and progressive-crushing policy changes.

For every dollar that helps Bethune-Cookman to remain open, renovate a facility at Edward Waters or establish a new program at Florida Memorial, there will be a greater debt owed to Florida’s Republican political machine. When alumni and advocates in South Carolina wonder how an unpopular and unproductive president like James Clark can remain as president when so many want him gone, and how an HBCU like Denmark Technical College which months ago was on the verge of closure and is now an object of affection for the highest seat of political leadership in the state — the answer is clear.

Every ‘yes’ to increased public funding for HBCUs, no matter how urgent, pleasantly received and survival-driven they may be, comes with a heavy political price for the campuses, and that debt is almost always assumed by presidents and chancellors. It doesn’t matter which party is in control or which handshake seals the deal; public funding for higher education is little more than a political transaction between a party and an institution with the understood agreement of “now for later” or "a favor for a favor.”

Not too long ago, some people would’ve called it a “quid pro quo.”

Whether quietly requested or silently forced, each of these schools will have a hard time saying ‘no’ to GOP mayors, legislators, fundraisers, and political operatives who want to use institutions for events, photo opportunities, and political cover for complex or controversial policy moves. While HBCUs are not likely to have to worry about their students storming state capitals, rallying against political causes or signing up thousands of new Democratic-leaning voters in the coming months or even years, Republican leaders throughout the south are wielding the power of the dollar to support HBCUs and to secure greater control of the campuses as political assets.

The concept started years ago when Talladega College accepted an invitation for its marching band to perform in Trump’s inaugural parade. It continued when HBCU presidents accepted a historic invitation to the Oval Office, and when U.S. Secretary Betsy DeVos served a controversial turn as Bethune-Cookman’s commencement keynote speaker just a few months later.

At the time, former President Edison Jackson’s non-sensical handling of the invitation and the speech itself clouded the view of what was really happening to his school and to the sector at large — a growing and necessary culture of political bipartisanship in an effort to save the schools.

For the most part, HBCUs have handled the partnership beautifully. Save for a misguided reaction to a campus invitation extending to a sitting United States’ Senator, and the occasional, hypocritical presidential outburst, schools like Benedict College have dealt with the fire and brimstone of bipartisan engagement with grace and tenacity.

But if black people are tired of HBCU presidents and chancellors dealing in political exchange, then they must rise to the cause of giving to the institutions, sending their children or themselves to the institutions for degrees, and advocating for HBCU support in policymaking at every level of governance. As the pandemic rages on with its epicenters growing in radius throughout the south, it is not a reach to assume that governors and lawmakers’ support for HBCUs in some states will be cashed in for compliance on reopening efforts, or at least, silence on the issue.

We don’t get to call our presidents and chancellors sellouts, Uncle Toms, or agents of ‘The Man’ when ‘The Man’ is saving HBCUs for less honorable principles than the ones we should hold high in the protection of our schools. It is inexcusable for a school like Edward Waters to pair an endowment of less than $2 million with aspirations of recurring positive cash balances and expansion as a university to be able to rely on Republican outreach more than it can the college’s one-percent alumni giving rate.

This move will only grow to states throughout the south, and to be clear, it is not a game that is strictly played by Republicans. So black people must decide; either we will use the power of organizations like black churches, local chapters of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), National Pan-Hellenic Council fraternities and sororities, and other collectives to stand up for HBCUs, or we will be comfortably silent and complicit with our HBCUs being stood up as political props.

As Edison Jackson infamously asked the class of 2017, it is time to choose which way we’re going to go.

Photo Credit: Patrick Michels (Texas Tribune)

Paul Quinn President Michael Sorrell

Sorrell talks about the school's decision to extend distance learning through the fall semester, and prospects of building new cultural and service infrastructure in the era of COVID-19.