The White House’s HBCU advisory board exists to make advancements in our HBCU community, but the COVID-19 pandemic is proving to be a formidable foe. Get the full story on how the board plans to tackle everything from lower infections to vaccinations in the story from Francesca Chambers at The Kansas City Star.

Credit: Delaware State University

President Joe Biden’s new advisory board on Historically Black Colleges and Universities will face an immediate challenge of how to approach COVID-19 prevention, with booster shots on the horizon and some states preventing public colleges and universities from mandating vaccinations for their students.

Biden this week tapped his former inaugural committee head Tony Allen, president of Delaware State University, to chair the presidential advisory board and make recommendations on policies to help HBCUs, including with their response to the coronavirus pandemic.

“HBCUs are not only educational institutions, they’re community institutions. These are places where not just students but the public can go and receive some services that they might not otherwise have an easy time getting,” Allen said in an interview.

Delaware State University mandated vaccines on its campus this academic year, and Allen said he would be in contact with fellow advisory board members and HBCU leaders across the country about additional efforts to curb the spread of the coronavirus at their schools.

HBCUs have been encouraging their students to get vaccinated and many have vaccination sites on or near their campuses that can help with booster shots to vaccinated Americans as soon as they are allowed.

The FDA will meet with its advisory committee next week to consider the approval of a Pfizer booster shot for individuals age 16 and older, and the Biden administration is eyeing the week of Sept. 20 for a nationwide rollout of booster shots to eligible individuals.

Allen said that if boosters are approved for widespread use, “it is likely that we will encourage, if not mandate, the booster shots” at DSU to help combat the delta variant. HBCUs are also poised to provide booster shots to the surrounding communities, Allen said, just as they did with vaccinations.

After Biden announced Thursday that most workers will be required to get vaccinated or test weekly, North Carolina A&T Chancellor Harold Martin said his school, which has the largest enrollment of any HBCU, is preparing for an influx of individuals seeking inoculations. 

“We expect that we’re going to see a ramp up not only in our employees and our students, but we expect to see a ramp up in the community around us who are seeking to get, to be vaccinated for the first time,” Martin said.

The White House said it would be up to the presidential advisory board to determine its approach to vaccine mandates.

Trey Baker, senior advisor for public engagement at the White House, said that Allen and the board will help guide administration efforts to distribute pandemic assistance to HBCUs that is intended to help the schools remain open and make technological improvements that allow for remote instruction.

“There’s a lot of funding that’s there. And so part of this will be having someone who’s in that position who will help shepherd the universities, the college presidents, to know how to access the resources to benefit the institutions,” Baker said.

Biden signed an executive order this month reestablishing the White House HBCU initiative and the board that will advise Biden and the administration on policy and funding levels.

Lodriguez Murray, senior vice president of public policy and government affairs at the United Negro College Fund, said that he was pleased to see efforts to help with pandemic-related issues explicitly mentioned in the executive order. 

“You can’t call together that kind of task force with as much brain power as they have without really putting them on the spot in terms of dealing with this pandemic,” Murray said. “I think that if that language were not included, it would be an elephant in the room.”

Biden has not yet named anyone besides Allen to the advisory board. His order said the board would be made up of HBCU presidents, educators, philanthropists, business leaders, entrepreneurs and other industry leaders.

Allen said he would be assisting with the selection of board members and the naming of an executive director. 

Biden’s executive order revokes the HBCU mandate established under the previous administration and replaces it with a new initiative. Recent presidents have signed similar orders in February, weeks after their inaugurations. Biden’s new guidance was issued much later, on Sept. 3.

Allen was a former speechwriter for Biden when he was a Delaware senator and an advisory board member on his presidential transition. Before DSU he was head of corporate reputation at Bank of America.

N.C. A&T’s Martin, who sat on former President Donald Trump’s HBCU advisory board, said it is imperative for the committee to have the “trust and confidence and support” of the White House, members of Congress and HBCU heads.

“I think a reconstitution of the advisory board, inclusive of new leadership will help to enhance significantly trust,” he said. “I think having Tony Allen as president of Delaware State, with a strong relationship, with support and the ear of the president, will be critically important for the advisory board.”

Allen said he spoke with Biden and Harris about HBCUs at the January inauguration.

“He knows my interests from the very beginning,” Allen said of the advisory board appointment. “His focus on HBCUs — I can tell you, even at the end of the inauguration, I got to spend just a few minutes with him and Vice President Harris — they both said, you can expect our continued and sustained support as a result.”

Harris is a graduate of Howard University, a private HBCU in Washington, D.C., making her the highest ranking U.S. official to have attended a historically Black institution. She visited Hampton University, a private HBCU near Norfolk, Va., on Friday.

“She’s not just the example of excellence that comes from HBCUs, she’s thoughtful on the topic, has been supportive throughout her public life,” Allen said of Harris, “and I know will help me and the board of advisors, as we shape, what, again, I think should be sustainable, equitable resources for HBCUs, the likes of which we haven’t seen.”

The administration directed $3 billion in pandemic assistance to HBCUs in a COVID-relief law earlier this year, and Biden asked Congress for another $90 billion for higher education institutions that serve minorities as part of his economic agenda. 

Securing funds to improve the physical infrastructure at HBCUs, including at research institutions, and expanding access to Federal Pell Grants will be priorities for the advisory board, Allen said. Student debt relief will also be a “big part” of their efforts, he said.

Baker said he expects the advisory board to help establish partnerships between HBCUs and corporations and that Allen’s previous corporate experience will be vital to that effort.

FAMU flags wave in front of Hard Rock Stadium during the tailgate before the Orange Blossom Classic featuring Florida A&M University and Jackson State University in Miami Gardens, Florida, on Sunday, September 5, 2021.(Credit: Daniel A. Varela) 

Inspiring more philanthropic organizations and businesses to partner with HBCUs is crucial to the future success of the schools, UNCF’s Murray said. 

“We’re used to HBCUs saying, we’ve done so much with so little for so long,” he added. “It’s up to Dr. Allen now to figure out the federal role, to figure out how to get rid of that phrase and start saying, HBCUs finally have as strong a level of resources as any other group of institutions, now let’s see how much more we and their students can do with a significant level of investment.”
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Allen said that increasing investments in HBCUs is a priority. 

“This is a renaissance moment for HBCUs, but more importantly, it’s a time where folks are paying attention to us,” he said. “And no one HBCU president is going to be able to do that by themselves, I’m going to need all my colleagues to be with me in this effort.”