MALVEAUX: HBCU Presidents and One-Note Betsy

Betsy DeVos
Betsy DeVos (Courtesy photo)

Eighty presidents of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) did a “fly-in” to the White House in a meeting organized by Trump whisperer Omarosa, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), and others. There was a White House meeting, a meeting at the Library of Congress, and more buzz than that which comes from a beehive. People were prepped to hear that the White House Initiative for HBCUs would move from the Department of Education to the White House and that this would have an impact on the resources HBCUs would receive from this president’s budget.

Can somebody spell hoodwinked? Sure, the HBCU presidents came to Washington and got their photo op with our nation’s 45th president (I’ll just call him 45). But the listening session they were to have with some cabinet leaders was interrupted in favor of the photo-op, which means that many who were tapped to speak and who had prepared remarks did not have the opportunity to deliver them. Notably, Dillard University President Walter Kimbrough posted his remarks online, and made a few media appearances sharing his dissatisfaction. And outgoing Morehouse President John Silvanus Wilson shared his disappointment in a letter with the Morehouse community.

To be sure, HBCU presidents are caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to this president. HBCUs have often done well under Republican presidents because they are low-hanging fruit. Located in the deeply Republican South, the senators who represent their states get points when they do the right thing, as do presidents who increase Pell grants and Title III dollars, as well as encouraging contract opportunities with government departments. Those who didn’t show up to the “fly-in” probably incurred the wrath of the vindictive Omarosa, who said she was “taking names” and that 45’s detractors would have to “bow down” to him. Presidents pretty much had to show up, and hope for the best. They went home empty-handed, with an executive order moving the White House Initiative on HBCU office into the White House, but with no additional resources to manage it. There was also lofty, but resource-devoid language in the executive order.

Can we just call Lack of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos “one note Betsy”? Wherever she looks, she sees school choice, although our educational challenges transcend her myopic agenda. If an ant, enticed by honey, entered a charter school instead of the public school next door, she’d call that school choice. Still, there is no way she can justify her historically ignorant and irresponsible remarks about HBCUs and school choice. In describing HBCUs and “real pioneers of school choice” she ignored our nation’s higher education history that offered no choice for African Americans who wanted college educations. She has since back pedaled her remarks, but she clearly is comfortable with her historical ignorance.

Dr. Dorothy Irene Height was accepted to Columbia University from a speech scholarship, but was turned away when she turned up and they discovered that she was a Negro. She matriculated at NYU instead. Charlayne Hunter Gault and Hamilton Holmes chose to attend the University of Georgia, but their matriculation generated headlines because white folks were not prepared to accept black students in 1961. Vivian Malone and James Hood chose to attend the University of Alabama, but Gov. George Wallace blocked their entrance in 1963. When James Meredith chose to attend the University of Mississippi, the National Guard facilitated his enrollment. How dare you, Betsy DeVos, talk about school choice to HBCU leaders, when our very reason for being was that choices were few and far between.

One-note Betsy is a frightening manifestation of ignorance. She is a songbird that must be muzzled before she further demonstrates her utter lack of knowledge. No matter what his rhetoric about HBCUs, our 45th president’s choice for secretary of education suggests that history and logic are not part of her portfolio.

This woman has a clear one-note agenda. It does not include support of the public schools that most students will attend. She is our nation’s policy leader on educational issues and yet she simmers in educational ignorance. She doesn’t understand history, nor HBCUs, nor the challenges that African American students have overcome in an educational system that is extremely racially biased. Can someone lock her up in the National Museum for African American History and Culture for a week or two? Or present her with classic tomes like “The Souls of Black Folks” (W.E.B. Du Bois, note the spelling Betsy), and The Miseducation of the Negro (Carter G. Woodson) to read before she offers another utterance?

Malveaux’s latest book “Are We Better Off?: Race, Obama and Public Policy,” is available via amazon.com.