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White House names new director of HBCU initiative

September 19, 2017 GMT

The White House announced former NFL player Johnathan M. Holifield as the executive director of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

The appointment was made on Monday morning, during the HBCU Week Conference, which has been downsized to three days this week; Sept. 17 to 19 in Washington, D.C.

“I’m happy that we finally got to this point at least,” said U.S. Rep. Alma Adams (D-NC) in a telephone conference. “I do look forward to working with him. We have a lot of work to do to effect some meaningful change for our schools.”

Adams, who leads the Congressional HBCU Caucus is also a graduate of North Carolina A&T State University and taught for 40 years at Bennett College, both HBCUs located in North Carolina. She doesn’t know much about Holifield except for his football career with the Cincinnati Bengals and his background in consulting.

President Donald Trump took office in January and the executive director position had been vacant since. Trump met with HBCU leaders in February, when he moved the Initiative from under the U.S. Department of Education to the White House.

“(The) Thurgood Marshall College Fund applauds President Trump’s decision to name a new executive director for the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges),” said Johnny C. Taylor Jr., the president and CEO of the TMCF, in a statement. “Johnathan M. Holifield has more than 20 years of multidisciplinary business and government experience, which will help lead the critical work of developing a robust policy and budgetary agenda to positively impact HBCUs, including our 47 publicly-supported member school.”

Tougaloo College President Beverly W. Hogan, of the historic Black college north of Jackson, Miss., used to serve on the Initiative’s Board of Advisors and is attending the summit.

In an email to The Tribune, Hogan said of Holifield, “His comments were encouraging as he expressed his intent to work with our HBCUs to access resources available across the federal government.

“He spoke with committed enthusiasm,” she added. “And, this is what we are interested in — garnering resources to help advance our missions and better serve our students. This is the reason it is important for the HBCUs to come to the table, share our interests — our priorities — meet the head of the agencies and their key staff persons and develop working relationships.”

Some HBCU presidents and supporters remained skeptical, including Tuskegee University board member Bernard E. Anderson.

“His appointment is meaningless if it does not come with some specific, explicit statement of support for historically black colleges and universities,” said Anderson, the professor emeritus at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. “The colleges will spend first class for (their presidents) to fly to Washington, stay in high priced hotels, they’ll eat good food ... that’s all a show. I’m tired of a show. How is this going to help the HBCUs?”

Anderson, a graduate of Livingstone College, an HBCU in Salisbury, N.C., and a former board chair of Lincoln University, said colleges and HBCUS need help policies, more support for financial aid, the Parent PLUS loan and the Capital Financing Loan program, which allows HBCUs to borrow money from the federal government for construction.

“These colleges are struggling and the (United Negro College Fund) colleges are struggling more than others,” added Anderson, formerly the Assistant Secretary of Labor for Employment Standards Administration in the Bill Clinton administration. “They need support from the federal government. I hope it’s more than a photo opportunity.”

Adams is also concerned, citing Trump’s budget, including Pell grants, which helps low-income college students, Title III funding and eliminating work study programs.

“We also need support for infrastructure on these campuses, most of them are over 100 years old,” added Adams. “Nine of them will be celebrating 150 years this year. These are the kinds of things get taken care of moving forward.”

Cheyney University Interim President Aaron Walton nor Lincoln University’s Brenda Allen did not attend the summit.