(CNN) Once again, leaders at historically black colleges and universities find themselves in the news responding to a move by the Trump administration. Wednesday, it was Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ commencement address at Bethune-Cookman, where, over a din of boos, she “reaffirm[ed] this administration’s commitment to and support for [historically black colleges and universities] and the students they serve.”
Students and alumni had already tried to pressure the school to cancel DeVos’ address because of her later-recanted statement that founders of HBCUs were “real pioneers” of school choice (when, in reality, HBCUs were founded during segregation when black students were barred from attending many white colleges).
But perhaps some of the booing also stemmed from the contrast between her comments about “support,” in light of President Trump’s comments the week before, in which he questioned the constitutionality of HBCU construction financing. On Friday, officials at Texas Southern University in Houston canceled a planned speech by GOP Sen. John Cornyn after strong student protest.
Even though Trump later said he has “unwavering support” for them, he and his staff have on multiple occasions generated controversy when it comes to the history and mission of HBCUs.
These fundamental missteps and misunderstandings matter to HBCUs because of just how much of their funding comes from the federal government. Direct federal investments and student aid make up 25% of HBCU revenue. So, engaging federal policymakers is not something HBCU leaders and their advocates can avoid or ignore — nor should the federal policymakers be taking their responsibility to HBCUs lightly.