At White House-Backed Conference, University Presidents Sound Guarded
By Hamil R. Harris
At a meeting this week of presidents from the nation's historically black colleges, convened by the White House, Obama administration officials offered support and new programs, but they also challenged the educators to do more toward providing their students with a quality higher education.
"We do not like to talk about our shortcomings, but we cannot fix what we do not examine," said John Silvanus Wilson Jr., executive director of the White House's Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities, during the opening address of the three-day conference at the Renaissance Hotel.
The conference, which began Monday, has attracted more than 1,200 participants, filling the corridors of the downtown hotel with people clad in dark suits and military uniforms as they shuttle between workshops and panel sessions.
Along with the HBCU presidents, the conference has also drawn federal agency heads who want to improve the relationship between the government and the colleges.
The White House is poised to unveil a new set of initiatives with the HBCUs later this month, an effort that Hampton University President William R. Harvey applauded. But, he added, their institutions need more.
"What we need to do get is more advocacy from the federal agencies, the Congress and President Barack Obama and others, and I think that you are going to get that," Harvey said.
Leslie Baskerville, executive director of the National Association for Equal Opportunities in Higher Education. said that the conference couldn't have come at a more important time because the White House needs to understand what HBCUs bring to the table.
"HBCUs are the economic engines in their communities," Baskerville said. "HBCUs are a $10 billion business. HBCUs have 184,000 employees, making them the 22nd largest employer in the nation. We graduate 70 percent of the African American engineers, 60 percent of the health professionals and 50 percent of all the African American teachers."
While a number of Obama administration officials addressed the gathering, some of the presidents were disappointed that Obama didn't attend himself and senior White House adviser Valerie Jarrett only sent a video message. One participant said that Obama had initially proposed cutting appropriations to HBCU, and that they had to work hard to get those funds restored. Education Secretary Arne Duncan is scheduled to speak Wednesday at the closing dinner of the conference.
Bennett College President Julianne Malveaux said that she is "excited" about the White House appointment of John Wilson, but that doesn't mean automatically that there will be a love fest between the White House and the HBCUs. "While we want to always be respectful of the challenges that this administration faces, we can never let up on our passionate advocacy fo these colleges that are so important to us," Malveaux said.
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