President Trump meets with leaders of historically black universities and colleges in the Oval Office in February. (AFP via Getty Images)

President Trump pledged “unwavering support” to historically black colleges Sunday night, after some university leaders and advocates expressed alarm at a statement he made Friday in which he questioned whether a funding source for such schools was constitutional.

Many leaders of historically black colleges had been pleased by overtures from the administration from the earliest days of Trump’s presidency, including an Oval Office meeting with university presidents in February.

But some were startled by a signing statement connected to a recently approved federal funding measure, released Friday, in which the White House said it would treat a program that helps such schools get low-cost construction loans in a manner consistent with the constitutional requirement to afford equal protection of the laws.

Advocates worried that meant the president might scrap a capital financing program, approved in 1992, that helps historically black colleges build, repair and renovate.

That prompted an outcry from people such as Rep. John Conyers Jr. (Mich.), the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, and Rep. Cedric L. Richmond (D-La.), chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus. They called the signing statement “stunningly careless and divisive,” adding: “We urge him to reconsider immediately.”

On Sunday night, Trump said in a statement: “The statement that accompanied my signing of the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2017, sets forth my intention to spend the funds it appropriates, including the funds for Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), consistently with my responsibilities under the Constitution. It does not affect my unwavering support for HBCUs and their critical educational missions.”

He noted past commitments: “In February of this year, I signed an executive order pledging to strengthen the capacity of HBCUs to provide the highest-quality education; to ensure equitable opportunities for HBCUs to participate in federal programs; and to increase the number of college-educated Americans who feel empowered and able to advance the common good at home and abroad.

“My commitment to the above-stated goals remains unchanged.

“In a few days, my Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos will give the commencement address at Bethune-Cookman University, a school founded by the great Mary McCleod Bethune and committed to leadership and service. Secretary DeVos chose an HBCU as the venue for her first commencement address to demonstrate my administration’s dedication to these great institutions of higher learning.

“I look forward to selecting an executive director and board for my HBCU initiative and continuing this important work with HBCUs throughout the nation.”

The statement misspelled the name of civil rights activist and educator Mary McLeod Bethune.

Harry Williams, president of Delaware State University, said he could easily imagine a staffer making a mistake while typing the release. He said familiarity may be an issue, as well. “In the African American community, I’m sure people are very familiar with that name.” But he said he was thinking of the substance of the message, which pleased him. “People make mistakes.”

A White House official did not respond to a question about the misspelling, but wrote Monday afternoon: “The signing statement is not intended in any way to suggest that there will be any change with the program or that it is unconstitutional.  It is intended merely to indicate that the program will continue to be implemented based on the traditional definition of HBCUs, which is based on mission and history and thus consistent with equal protection principles.  The President and Secretary DeVos unambiguously reiterated their complete, unwavering support for HBCUs. So it should be clear that this is in no way a policy change or suggestion that the provision will not be implemented.”

College presidents were pleased to see the statement of “unwavering support” for HBCUs, said Johnny C. Taylor Jr., president and chief executive of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund. When people saw the statement Friday evening, he said, many were upset and asking questions. “They’re still bothered that it happened,” he said, but they were glad the president responded so quickly to their concerns.

“There was a lot of noise in the community” after the signing statement, said Williams, the Delaware State University president. He said he was wondering about it, too. “This is not a new program,” he said. “It’s something that’s been here for a while, so to question whether or not it is discriminatory, I felt, is a little bit odd. So when I got the statement last night I felt much better, because he came out and basically reinforced what he had said when we were at the White House about his support for HBCUs.”

Williams said he is cautiously optimistic about the administration. He felt it was responsive to HBCU requests that Pell grants for students from low-income families be available year-round. Since about 70 percent of students at historically black colleges, on average, are eligible to receive the grants, Williams said they could help students continue their studies during the summer and graduate more quickly. “There’s some dialogue here that is helpful…. We need to keep the conversation going.”

Richmond and Conyers responded with a statement Monday afternoon, dismissing Trump’s words as “just PR.”

“He held a meeting with more than 70 HBCU presidents in February and then said after the meeting that they didn’t ask him for anything even though they did. He signed an executive order that moves the HBCU initiative into the White House but does little else.” They wrote that the funding for programs such a year-round Pell grants in the bill signed Friday was the result of negotiations by congressional Republicans and Democrats that began before President Trump took office.

The National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education (NAFEO) responded to the president’s statement on Monday: “NAFEO appreciates the clarification by President Trump. We are pleased that President Trump underscored his unfaltering commitment to investing in HBCUs.”

The United Negro College Fund said in a statement Monday afternoon: “We are gratified that the administration has reaffirmed its support for HBCUs; however, the signing statement has suggested that the administration has some doubt about the constitutionality of HBCU programs and that doubt needs to removed.

“The FY 2017 omnibus appropriated funds in the U.S. Department of Education and other federal agencies, including the HBCU Capital Financing Program, and we look forward to the administration executing those funds as quickly as possible for the benefit of the nation’s HBCUs and the 300,000 students they serve.”

The administration reached out early, and eagerly, to historically black colleges and universities. During the Oval Office meeting, Vice President Pence expressed the administration’s support for such schools. DeVos’s first visit to a school in the United States as education secretary was to Howard University, a historically black university. That outreach was welcomed by many, and greeted with skepticism and protest by others. Some students — as at Howard, where there were demonstrations — called on university presidents to reject the overtures.

DeVos struck a discordant note for many when she described historically black colleges, in a statement, as pioneers of school choice. She clarified the next day that the schools were founded at a time of limited, if any, educational opportunities for African Americans.

Taylor said people were upset by that, but he noted that when then-Vice President Joe Biden referred to the “nation of Africa” in a speech to African leaders in 2014, “you didn’t see this total meltdown.” Many took it as a misstatement, Taylor said, a gaffe rather than a revelation of ignorance.

A group of students, alumni and others said they plan to present petitions to the Bethune-Cookman administration Tuesday, calling on the university’s president to revoke DeVos’s invitation to speak at commencement.

DeVos released a statement Sunday night expressing her support for historically black colleges and the critical role they play, saying she would continue to be an advocate for them and that she was looking forward to visiting Bethune-Cookman this week.