Instead of worrying about where Kellyanne Conway's feet are, or blasting Betsy DeVos's ignorance on HBCUs we should insist that black college presidents start or join a movement for free tuition at HBCUs and public colleges and universities. Millions of college grads of all colors carry unpayable debt and are frustrated by lack of opportunities. This demand earned Bernie Sanders millions of votes. It’s a mass movement in waiting.
Black folks with nothing better to do were up in arms for a day about Kellyanne Conway’s feet buried in the Oval Office sofa messing with her phone while the presidents and chancellors of historically black colleges and universities crowded around Donald Trump’s desk. Some others have written about Betsy DeVos’s note on HBCUs, which revealed her stunning and self-serving ignorance of their history and origin. But pointing out how disrespectful or stupid key members of the Trump administration is partisan BS that won’t not save a single college education, let alone remedy the desperate situation of our historically black colleges and universities.
Right now, the heads of HBCUs have an historic opportunity to save their institutions by stirring up a movement from below for free tuition for HBCUs and for all public colleges and universities, for loan forgiveness for students at public universities, interest reductions for all students and for getting the federal government out of the student loan business.
Free college tuition is not an impractical pie in the sky. Germany does it. France does it. Norway and a dozen other countries do it. State universities in California and Louisiana did it for decades in the 20th century. It was a cornerstone demand of Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign that earned him millions of votes. Free college education is what modern human societies do when they recognize that education is a public good not a private privilege. A nominal tax on Wall Street and reallocation of federal funds that now go to student lenders would easily pay for free tuition.
HBCUs were founded with white philanthropy beginning in the 1860s because the newly freed black population urgently needed teachers and other professionals, and because white colleges rarely admitted black students. Black student access was still being litigated in the US nine decades later, and to this day HBCUs produce a far greater percentage of highly competent black college grads than other institutions.
But the leaders of our HBCUs have largely failed to envision ways to fund their institutions outside of white philanthropy and occasional special government funding directed exclusively at them. The United Negro College Fund has even accepted Koch Brothers money with many nasty strings attached. It’s time to stop digging that hole deeper.
There are historic currents in motion right now. Millions of college grads, not just black ones, are crushed by unpayable student debt and lack of opportunities and they have proven receptive to the idea of free college tuition. It’s a movement waiting to be galvanized. The Trump administration won’t much like it, any more than Hillary did. But free college tuition for HBCUs and public institutions is something that can be accomplished in a decade or so of agitation and struggle. If our HBCU college presidents are truly leaders and not followers, this is the current they can tap into.
Of course the common wisdom is that nobody is more conservative than a black college president. It’s a stereotype some of them will have to violate to save their institutions, and to save the very idea of education as a public good not a private privilege. If the first black president did not save HBCUs, nothing Donald Trump is willing to give out will do the trick either. It’s time to really bargain, to demand what is not being offered. And if our historically black college presidents lack the political vision and intestinal fortitude to do it, maybe we need to start this movement without them.
For Black Agenda Radio I’m Bruce Dixon. Find us on the web at www.blackagendareport.com.
Bruce A. Dixon is managing editor at Black Agenda Report and the co-chair of the GA Green Party. The Green Party platform calls for free college tuition. Dixon can be reached via email at bruce.dixon(at)blackagendareport.com.