This is a tale of two presidents, James Cheek of Howard University and Ronald Reagan, two public relations presidents who would appear to be the original odd couple.
Reagan is president of one the most powerful countries in the world and a man whose conservative foreign and domestic policies have made his administration highly unpopular with many of the Americans he serves.
Cheek registers much lower on the Richter scale of power, although he is president of the largest black university in the country, a school that some call "the symbol of black pride."
But the contrasts of President Reagan and President Cheek have somehow made them allies. Reagan is in the business of symbolism and tokenism. He pays a high-profile visit to a black family in Maryland, for instance, that has been harassed by the Ku Klux Klan, and assures them that Klan terrorism has no place in America. Yet this is the same man who proposes to cut $40 billion in the social and human services programs that are lifelines for millions of blacks.
Two days ago, President and Mrs. Reagan were the star attractions at a $1,000-a-person fund-raiser at Howard. Cheek gave him the red carpet treatment, even though most black leaders in higher education have given highest priority to defeating Reagan's 1983 budget recommendations because of the severe impact these would have on black colleges.
The bind between this odd pair is that each is an image builder in his own way. Reagan is into symbolism and tokenism, and Cheek is in the business of accommodating it.
In November, Mrs. Reagan toured Howard University Hospital. Last spring, Vice President George Bush delivered the main address at Howard's commencement. President Cheek has sprung to the defense when the National Urban League and other black groups have condemned Reagan's policies.
Not since the days of Booker T. Washington, who accepted a subordinate place for blacks in the American social order, has a black educator paid such a heavy price to nurture and maintain a special relationship with the White House. Washington's program of compromise and accommodation occurred in the two decades before he died in l9l5. Our own day has no place for such behavior.
Cheek justifies his courtship of the Reagan administration by pointing to the bottom line. With Reagan's support, Howard received an 8.4 percent increase in federal funding this year--at a time when the administration has been pushing 20 percent to 25 percent cuts in many education programs, and the 1983 budget proposes to cut in half financial aid to all college students.
But Cheek is playing a dangerous game. He is alienating the majority of Democrats without realizing that Republicans will not be in office indefinitely. He is mortgaging the future of a university that pays three-quarters of its academic expenses with federal funds, in a risky gambit of blatantly partisan politics.
The only way PR-presidents can operate is to be willfully oblivious to the wishes of their constituents. Reagan often succeeds because he is a master of image and illusion. Cheek's administration often must be a bit more crude. Last summer, an essay in the university magazine that sharply criticized the Reagan administration's proposed cutbacks in student loans and other programs benefiting black students was killed. And the invitation to Reagan was extended unilaterally, much to the chagrin of student and faculty leaders on the campus.
Some 250 faculty and staff members and students gathered in Thursday night's sweltering heat to protest and to hear organizer Ron Walters say that their turnout expressed "the dissatisfaction of the black community."
The dissatisfaction is legitimate. Reagan used the 20-minute stop at Howard to make a pitch for his economic program and against big government, and to try to give his controversial trickle-down economic policies the imprimatur of the black intelligentsia and the country's greatest black university.
That is especially alarming because over the years Howard University has been a wellspring of black leadership--local, national and international. The issue here is more than the leadership or accountability of one man. The issue is the university's reputation in decades to come. Howard University can't be for sale to the highest bidder.