WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump signed an executive order Tuesday to increase support and oversight of the nation's historically black colleges and universities within his administration — but stopped short of providing the federal money the schools badly need.
Nor did administration officials hold the in-depth meeting that some presidents and chancellors of the black schools had sought. And Betsy DeVos, Trump's education secretary, and Kellyanne Conway, a top adviser, ignited firestorms.
Walter Kimbrough, president of Dillard University in New Orleans, said scheduled time to engage administration officials in a listening session about the challenges HBCUs face blew up when it was decided to take the large group of college presidents and chancellors to the Oval Office for a group photo with Trump.
"Needless to say, that threw the day off and there was very little listening to HBCU presidents today. We were only given about two minutes each, and that was cut to one minute, so only seven of maybe 15 or so speakers were given an opportunity today," Kimbrough said in a statement.
DeVos created a social media explosion with her statement about HBCUs on Monday. She called the institutions the "real pioneers when it comes to school choice," glancing over the fact that government-enforced segregation laws for decades prevented African-Americans from attending many majority-white colleges and universities.
"Was there a better way to word it? Yes," said Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., who is African-American. "Clarity in your statements is always important, but if in the end we are able to make progress going forward compared to the last several years, I think they'll be happy."
Conway, counselor to the president, stirred her own social media storm when she was seen casually kneeling on an Oval Office couch while taking photos of Trump and the HBCU presidents.
Trump's administration was eager to stress the president's order moving the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities, which pushes the federal government to do more business with the colleges, from the Department of Education directly into the White House. The president will name a director to oversee the effort.
Trump was effusive as he spoke in the Oval Office before signing the order.
"Historically black colleges and universities are incredibly important institutions, woven into the fabric of our history, just about like no other," he said.
"They have played such an important role in achieving progress for African-Americans and in our nation's march for justice. HBCUs have been really pillars of the African-American community for more than 150 years, amazing job, and a grand and enduring symbol of America at its absolute best," he added.
Trump's order directs federal agencies to boost the ability of HBCUs to compete and get federal contracts worth billions of dollars. But it doesn't mention specific funding levels for HBCUs or establish specific targets for the amount of contracts or grants the campuses should receive.
The nation's 100-plus black colleges and universities, which enroll nearly 300,000 students, receive money from the federal government through grants, contracts, appropriations and financial aid. They received $4.7 billion in federal financial assistance in 2013, according to the latest annual report available. The money accounted for 2.8 percent of the federal funds awarded to all higher education institutions.
Nearly 90 HBCU presidents and chancellors came to Washington this week seeking $25 billion in the upcoming budget to help their schools improve their infrastructure and ability to provide financial aid for students.
The United Negro College Fund urged Trump to set in his order "an aspirational goal that HBCUs be awarded 5 percent of total federal grant, internship and cooperative agreement funding and 10 percent of total federal contract funding to colleges and universities." That would nearly double federal support to HBCUs.
While the administration could set goals for contracting and grants, Congress ultimately decides funding. Scott, who organized Tuesday's congressional GOP-HBCU meeting with Rep. Mark Walker, R-N.C., said Trump's order could spur agencies and Congress to find new funding.
Walker, chair of the conservative Republican Study Committee, sent a letter to House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chair Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, and top committee Democrat Elijah Cummings of Maryland, calling for hearings on federal grants, contracts and cooperative agreements for HBCUs.
The HBCU presidents met with Scott, Walker, House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and other GOP lawmakers Tuesday during a daylong meeting at the Library of Congress.
Scott and several HBCU presidents and officials said the meetings this week were the start of a dialogue between the schools and the Republican power structure that hadn't occurred for years.
It was also a discussion largely absent during President Barack Obama's tenure, say some HBCU officials who were disappointed in Obama for not making the schools a priority and, in some cases, harming their financial health and contributing to declining enrollment with changes his administration made to loan programs.
"Frankly, the attention we've received in the last 45 or so days exceeds not just this past administration, but the last three or four administrations," said Johnny C. Taylor Jr., president and CEO of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, a nonpartisan advocacy group for 47 publicly supported HBCUs.
Still, students on several HBCU campuses voiced opposition to their presidents meeting with the Trump administration, whose policies and rhetoric they regard as hostile towards African-Americans.
Tashni Dubroy, president of Shaw University in Raleigh, N.C., said she had consulted with her campus community before coming to Washington.
"There were some of our stakeholders that were hesitant because what they did not want was an embarrassment for HBCU presidents," she said. "They did not want us to be used in terms of a photo opportunity, and then no tangible outcomes would be received from the meeting."
James Clark. president of South Carolina State University, said he was pleased with the discussions with Republican leaders.
"What's critical for us is we're sitting at the table, having a very specific dialogue for which we will bring more clarity to the needs," Clark said. "The fact that the presidents are being listened to, will be listened to, is critical. It's an important beginning for all of us."