HBCU President On Trump Meeting: 'We Gotta Invest In Our Young People' Presidents of Historically Black Colleges and Universities are in Washington, D.C., this week pressing their priorities with the Trump administration and lawmakers. NPR's Ari Shapiro talks with Walter Kimbrough, president of Dillard University in New Orleans, about the meetings.
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HBCU President On Trump Meeting: 'We Gotta Invest In Our Young People'

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HBCU President On Trump Meeting: 'We Gotta Invest In Our Young People'

HBCU President On Trump Meeting: 'We Gotta Invest In Our Young People'

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

This afternoon, President Trump signed a number of executive orders including one recognizing the importance of historically black colleges and universities. He called those schools a grand and enduring symbol of America at its best.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: With this executive order, we will make HBCUs a priority in the White House, an absolute priority.

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SHAPIRO: He was surrounded by leaders of historically black schools. Yesterday they were scheduled to have a listening session with the new education secretary, Betsy DeVos, and other officials. That was shortened when the opportunity arose for a meet and greet with the president in the Oval Office. Walter Kimbrough was there. He's the president of Dillard University in New Orleans, and I reached him earlier today at the Library of Congress.

WALTER KIMBROUGH: We didn't expect to have an audience with the president, and that really, you know - it really was a photo opportunity. We didn't have any significant conversation. I mean he's working on his speech for the night. So that was OK, but I didn't go there for that. That wasn't my intent. It's just something that happened. I really was interested more in a conversation with the secretary because she's new. She doesn't really know higher education. She doesn't know HBCUs. And so this is an opportunity to educate her. So that was a great opportunity that I just felt like was missed.

SHAPIRO: What was the message that you were bringing the administration?

KIMBROUGH: So one of the ones I wanted to focus on was the Pell Grant Program. Over 70 percent of HBCU students are recipients of the federal Pell Grant. So the thing I say - you have basically under-resourced institutions that are the ones that are trying to serve the most under-resourced students and families. Investing in that program really can change generations.

And so that was very important for me to share that with the secretary of education and some of the key areas that were represented. Office of Management and Budget was there as well. But that's very important, so we've got to invest in our young people. I mean we invest in everything else, and usually education is last.

SHAPIRO: This comes on a day that President Trump is giving a speech where he is expected to make the case for taking money from domestic programs, including education, to spend more on defense. Do you feel like you're talking to a receptive audience?

KIMBROUGH: Yeah, we'll see. I'm really curious to hear what's going to happen with the speech tonight. And then when the budget starts to be released next month, that will really show whether, you know, the meeting that we had was really productive or if there's still some work that needs to be done.

SHAPIRO: The education secretary, Betsy DeVos, put out a statement where she praised historically black colleges and universities as an example of school choice. Is that the way you see it?

KIMBROUGH: Well, I think that she was looking for an opportunity yesterday to connect what she knows best in that idea of school choice with HBCUs. So I was in the room when the statement was given. It wasn't done in any kind of malicious way or anything like that. She was looking for a common point. But of course, as you know, it didn't (laughter) really go over well.

So she just gave another luncheon speech with HBCU leaders, and so she changed it. And her phrase this time was, your history was born not out of mere choice but necessity. So I think there was an acknowledgment that the phraseology wasn't the best. But I think she was looking for a way to sort of connect with HBCUs.

SHAPIRO: I understand that HBCUs generally were not entirely satisfied with President Obama's policies. Do you think President Trump can remedy some of what you saw as the shortcomings of the Obama administration?

KIMBROUGH: Well, I mean we'll have to see. You know, there was some really strong promises made when we were in the Oval Office yesterday.

SHAPIRO: What were the promises?

KIMBROUGH: Well, that this administration is going to fully support HBCUs in the work that we do; we value HBCUs. All of that was said, and you know, for me, the proof will be in the budget. So if we see a cut in programs like Pell, what we were told then is inconsistent.

So there has to be some kind of resource investment in HBCUs because there is research that shows it's a great investment, that we're able to take those dollars and invest them in students and move people from the lowest socioeconomic status up two or more levels. So that's - I think that's very important.

SHAPIRO: Donald Trump did not get a lot of votes from African-Americans, and there's a lot of skepticism among black Americans today. Did you come away from this meeting feeling more assured, less assured, jury's still out?

KIMBROUGH: Oh, jury's still out I mean just for anyone. It's - all the talk was good. There's some symbolism there. But I mean the jury's out. I'm waiting for the budget.

SHAPIRO: Walter Kimbrough is president of Dillard University, a historically black school in New Orleans. He spoke with us from the Library of Congress here in Washington. Thanks for your time, and happy Mardi Gras.

KIMBROUGH: All right, thank you so much.

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