During her recent oration to the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) luncheon in Washington D.C., U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos spoke at length on subjects dear to the objectives of these institutions of higher learning. In attendance were President Haywood Strickland of Wiley College, President William Harvey of Hampton University, President Walter Kimbrough of Dillard University, President David Beckley of Rust College, President Beverly Wade Hogan of Tougaloo College, President Jimmy Jenkins, Sr. of Livingston College and President Edison Jackson of Bethune-Cookman University. The engaging gathering was essentially a seminar for overall black education, its ongoing progress, achievements and future.
DeVos spoke on how HBCU have paved the way for careers of great leaders, artists, athletes and patriots. She especially singled out the “first lady of the struggle” of civil rights, Mary McLeod-Bethune, who was the daughter of slaves.
“Mary was the only member of her family to attend school, and when she came home at night she taught her siblings everything she had learned,” she said. “She went from that one-room schoolhouse to founding a university that today bears her name.”
Determined to overcome a status quo that denied her people adequate education, McLeod-Bethune did not let her country’s racist tradition and her personal poverty to hinder her quest. She commenced her crusade in 1904, and by the time of her death at age 79 she had seen her dream come to fruition. Bethune-Cookman University in Florida is a bulwark of the HBCU movement, upholding its namesake’s dedication to African American students.
DeVos also spoke about her second day as education secretary, when she met with Dr. Wayne Frederick and student leaders at Howard University. She was impressed with the school’s program to provide students with four years of undergraduate college education that is completed in just three years. She also credited the students’ deep commitment and pride to and in their college and its dedication to their personal growth and long-term vocational success. Because of their very nature, HBCUs have always been something more than merely dispensers of upper education. This was established during Reconstruction when they provided desperately needed educational opportunities to newly freed slaves. Her words on this legacy carried weight and a fierce revelation of facts that must not be suppressed.
“You’ve grown to become world-class incubators of talent, producing leaders including Justice Thurgood Marshall, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Spike, Lee, Cab Calloway, Langston Hughes and Oprah Winfrey, among others famous and not-so-famous,” she said.
DeVos pointed out how HBCUs are responsible for providing the bulk of black teachers, doctors, judges, engineers and sundry technical professionals. President Donald Trump’s signing of an executive order expanding White House support of HBCUs as an indication the new president and his administration are allies in the quest to advance the HBCU’s mission. Hopefully this will lead to not only more and desperately needed degreed graduates entering society and the work force, but improvement of community lifestyles across the country. Trump doubtless saw a splendid worker for this cause when he offered DeVos the position of education secretary. He was right.
“One of the reasons I accepted the president’s offer to serve, is my longstanding commitment to fighting for equal educational opportunity,” she said.
She pointed out that even today just over half of all black students have access to the full gamut of mathematical and scientific courses needed for college admittance. She takes this unacceptable reality as a main objective in her personal quest for every young American to have access to a quality education, insuring that none fall through the cracks. She pointed to her personal friend Denisha Merriweather. Raised in poverty by a single mother, Denisha shuffled between multiple schools, failed the third grade twice and seemed on track to follow her mother and brother into the abyss of poverty brought on by inadequate education. Her godmother and a Florida-based school choice program came to the rescue and enrolled her in a school that catered to her personal needs. She became her family’s first to graduate from high school, college and is now completing her master’s program. Her chronicle is a glittering story of success over a country’s long tradition of racism. HBCU made it possible.
HBCU continue to open collegiate doors to eager students of all persuasions regardless of their zip codes and/or annual income. This is especially crucial for the whole country since many of these students specialize in highly in-demand fields such as science, technology, engineering and math. HBCU provide a full quarter of all African-American students with bachelor’s degrees in these majors. A good example of this is how, in 2015, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology collaborated with North Caroline Central University’s (NCCU) College of Arts and Sciences to open a Fabrication Laboratory on NCCU’s College of Arts and Sciences This has enabled all students in that area to take ownership of their learning processes, and since the “Fab Lab” is open to the public, area businesspeople can create and shape new ideas for their firms. HBCUs are deeply involved in the establishment of Fab Labs nationwide. DeVos is right in the middle of this movement.
“Under my leadership, the Department of Education will continue working closely with you to help identify evolving needs, increase capacity and attract research dollars,” she said. “We will also work closely with you to launch new initiatives that meet the needs of today’s students.”
She followed up this declaration with a promise that high school students are ready for what awaits them as they enroll in college. No student will set out to achieve goals at levels set too low for them. She will make certain all educational facilities “engage with an eye toward solutions.” All students will be prepared to reach the utmost of their God-given potential. “One’s toil, effort and courage” will lead to adequate reward. Higher education is to be made both achievable and affordable for all students, be provided in safe environments, engage in rigorous, educational debate in a challenging process that in the future will give them great pride in the opportunities they have seized and successes they have earned.
Texas Senator John Cornyn spoke glowingly on the efforts and accomplishments of HBCU, and how the new executive order with enable this success to continue and expand.
“For generations, these institutions have provided Texas students with high quality education and a great sense of community and history,” he said. “The President’s commitment today is significant, and I hope even more Texans will be afforded the chance to become a part of these storied institutions across our state.”
Congressman Elijah E. Cummings (D-MD) made it clear the President’s efforts so far are little more than a promising beginning. Cummings is a graduate of Howard University, and serves on Morgan State University’s board of regents. He is the father of two Howard University alumni. He has a firm grasp of the vital importance of HBCU in this society, and for too long the only choice. He suspects Trump and DeVos still have a long way to go because he believes “structural racism” is still a problem.
“If President Trump is serious about helping HBCUs he must also be serious about removing the structural barriers African-Americans still face, and he should put his money where his pen is by urging his colleagues in Congress to increase federal funding to HBCUs,” he said.
The President also hosted Jarvis Christian College President Dr. Lester C. Newman and 32 United Negro College Fund member-institution presidents at the event intended to continue and expand cooperation between HBCU and the federal government. Dr. Newman, president of Jarvis Christian College in Hawkins described the Monday meeting as “open, frank and constructive,” and expressed his hope that 105-year-old Jarvis Christian College will benefit from this collaboration.