At Howard University, a school known for its activism and commitment to social justice, Sen. Kamala D. Harris implored graduates at Saturday’s commencement to fight the policies of the Trump administration.
“You are graduating into a very different time than it was when you arrived a few short years ago,” said Harris (D-Calif.), a graduate of Howard. “We have a fight ahead. It’s a fight to determine what kind of country we will be. And it’s a fight to determine whether we are willing to stand up for our deepest values.”
Harris’s remarks at the historically black college in the District tapped into the political discord the Trump administration has sown through its controversial decisions, including directing prosecutors to pursue mandatory minimum prison sentences , a hard-line approach that has kept thousands of African American men behind bars. Her address also served as a bulwark against the uncertainty President Trump created by his wavering support for historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) like Howard.
“When voices at the highest level of our government seem confused about the significance and even the constitutionality of supporting HBCUs, I say look over here at Howard University,” Harris said. “We need you. Our country needs you. The world needs you.”
During this year’s graduation season, commencement speeches have been particularly political, mirroring stark divisions across the country. Trump himself spoke to graduates at Liberty University, a Christian school in Lynchburg, Va., on Saturday, telling them to “challenge entrenched interests.”
HBCUs have had a fraught relationship with the Trump administration. University leaders headed to the White House earlier this year with the hope of increased funding and aid for students, but many were disappointed when the president’s budget did not include any of their requests.
Tensions rose when Education Secretary Betsy DeVos called historically black institutions “real pioneers when it comes to school choice,” a statement that advocates for HBCUs said ignored that the schools were a response to racist Jim Crow laws that enforced segregation. Although DeVos walked back her statement, the damage was evident in the chilly reception she received this week at Bethune-Cookman University in Florida, a historically black school where some students booed during the secretary’s commencement speech.
Just days before the incident at Bethune-Cookman, Trump alarmed leaders and advocates of HBCUs by questioning the constitutionality of low-cost construction loans for repairs, renovations and new buildings at such schools.
“HBCUs are trying to walk a delicate line because they realize that they have to be supportive of the administration to some extent because funding comes from the Department of Education,” said Robert T. Palmer, a professor of education at Howard. “But Trump and his administration have very little understanding of historically black universities, their value or importance.”
Celebrating its 150th anniversary, Howard is widely considered a flagship among the nation’s HBCUs. Its business and law schools are revered, and the university produces among the highest number of African Americans who earn doctorates. This year, Howard awarded 2,173 degrees, including 318 master’s and 105 doctorates. More than 375 students received degrees in law, medicine, pharmacy and dentistry.
Saturday’s commencement brings to a close a tumultuous year at Howard. A visit in February from DeVos sparked student protests, with some calling for the school to reject federal funding from the Trump administration. Students were infuriated that Howard President Wayne A.I. Frederick gave no notice of DeVos’s visit, and in their estimation played down the significance of hosting an appointee of an administration that many see as hostile to African Americans.
“You shouldn’t have people here who are a part of an administration that is against us,” said Imani Ruby Glenn, who earned a bachelor of fine arts from Howard on Saturday. “Do we want money that they really don’t want to give us?”
In an interview on WAMU’s Kojo Nnamdi show in late February, Frederick said it was important for schools to interact with people with whom they disagree, as well as those who share their values. He said he would welcome a time when Howard is no longer reliant on federal appropriations, but that is not on the horizon as the university contends with millions of dollars in uncollected tuition and a massive backlog of deferred maintenance costs. Howard and its hospital receive about $222 million in annual federal appropriations.
Despite Frederick’s call for engagement, student activists were unmoved and made it clear with a message scrolled on a campus sidewalk weeks later: “Welcome to the Trump plantation. Overseer: Wayne A.I. Frederick.”
Dissatisfaction with Frederick came to a head in April, when a leadership group in the faculty senate took a vote of no confidence in the president and Provost Anthony Wutoh. The group cited concerns about the university’s finances, failures in leadership and a lack of transparency. Other faculty leaders challenged the validity of the vote and pledged support for Frederick and Wutoh, as did many students.
“The previous president, Sidney Ribeau, handed Frederick a lot of problems. We can’t expect him to turn it around in four years,” said Alexis Orr, who graduated Saturday with a bachelor’s degree in business administration. “I’ve seen a lot of good things come from him, but he’s also had to make a lot of hard calls. We just have to be patient. He’s a three-time Howard grad, and he has the school’s best interest at heart.”
Frederick hinted at the trials of the past few months on Saturday but kept the focus on the Class of 2017. His address, nevertheless, alluded to the ongoing debate at the school and at other HBCUs over engaging the Trump administration.
“The journey of one’s academic pursuit will at times be uncomfortable, it will ensure that students and faculty alike gain insights into the variety of experiences of the human condition, the essence of which is engagement and not isolation,” he told graduates.