DeVos issued a statement after meeting with HBCU leaders Feb. 27, calling the institutions “pioneers” of school choice. She said they began because of unequal access to education among American students.
“They saw that the system wasn’t working, that there was an absence of opportunity, so they took it upon themselves to provide the solution,” she said.
Critics said DeVos ignored the fact that HBCUs were created in response to Jim Crow laws prohibiting black students from attending traditionally white schools.
Marybeth Gasman, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Minority-Serving Institutions, said DeVos’ comments were inappropriate.
“You just can’t have a conversation about black colleges without talking about our history of slavery and segregation,” she said.
Jenna Robinson, president of the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal, said she understood what DeVos was trying to say, but it was articulated poorly.
“I think she certainly does know that HBCUs were created in an era of segregation,” she said. “I don’t think it’s possible for a woman of her experience and her age not to know that.”
At a luncheon with HBCU leaders Feb. 28, DeVos addressed the topic, saying systemic failures prevented African-American students from receiving quality education.
Tashni-Ann Dubroy, president of Shaw University in Raleigh, said in an email that she thinks DeVos’ follow-up comments were made in an effort to clarify her position.
“Thinking beyond her initial statement, it is important that we focus on the contemporary value of HBCUs as educational resources improving the lives and communities of millions throughout our country,” Dubroy said.
DeVos’ comments highlight the importance of having HBCU leaders involved in discussions surrounding higher education, Dubroy said.
Trump’s new executive order moves the Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities from the Department of Education to the Executive Office of the White House. It increases the role of private foundations in providing HBCUs with institutional planning, fiscal stability and infrastructure improvements, and it aims to strengthen HBCUs’ ability to equitably participate in federal programs.
Despite the order, Gasman said she doesn’t believe the Trump administration will do anything for HBCUs.
“The only thing that it did was move the initiative into the White House, and that would scare me,” she said. “If I were an HBCU leader right now, I would be really afraid of that.”
She said if Trump really wants to help, he needs to make large-scale investments.
“But what we see with this executive order is there was no money tied to it, and he has no intention of giving HBCUs any money — I think he did that for a photo op and that’s what it’s about,” Gasman said.
Johnson Akinleye, interim chancellor of North Carolina Central University, said in a statement the order is an encouraging first step.
“We realize that there are additional conversations, strategies and actions required to ensure that student-scholars who seek an education at our institutions are competitively positioned to thrive in the global marketplace,” he said.
Dubroy expects Trump will consider HBCUs equally with other colleges.
“My expectation is that President Trump will consider HBCUs, along with all other colleges and universities, as resources to help in job creation, reform for secondary education and community development that is sustainable for generations to come,” she said.