The White House announced Monday that former Cincinnati Bengals player Johnathan Holifield would lead its initiative on historically black colleges and universities, a group of more than 100 higher education institutions founded to serve black Americans when the majority of colleges and universities prevented minorities from enrolling.
Holifield, a tech entrepreneur and author, emphasized the continued relevance of HBCUs in the country's economy and education environment. About 1 in 5 black Americans with a bachelor's degree received it from an HBCU, according to the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, an organization that helps fund HBCUs.
“There is no patent to sustain new job creation, shared prosperity and enduring national competitiveness without the current and increased contributions of historically black colleges and universities,” Holifield said.
But Trump's latest pick brings to mind a common critique of the president: Critics say he has made a habit of hiring people to oversee departments in which they don't have much experience. And many of those departments deal with large populations of underserved and marginalized groups.
Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson was tapped to head the Department of Housing and Urban Development despite having no significant urban policy experience; Betsy DeVos oversees the nation's public schools despite having never worked in — or being educated in — public schools; and Jared Kushner and his wife, Ivanka Trump, the daughter of the president, are senior advisers to the president and are involved in multiple policy areas, including issues related to the Middle East, in which they have not demonstrated any meaningful expertise.
Holifield does not have experience in higher education. According to his website, he created Ohio’s first information technology public school, which went on to become a U.S. Department of Education National Blue Ribbon School. He also helped secure a $5 million appropriation to implement Ohio's first STEM education and entrepreneurship program.
Omarosa Manigault Newman, an alumna of an HBCU herself and an assistant to the president and director of communications for the Office of Public Liaison, spoke favorably Monday of Holifield, defending the hire by praising Holifield's “experience” and boasting that “he knows his stuff.”
But some are less confident about Holifield, who is a graduate of West Virginia University and the University of Cincinnati, neither of which are HBCUs.
Marybeth Gasman, director of the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions at the University of Pennsylvania, questioned Holifield’s knowledge of the subject he'll oversee.
“I have some concerns that Holifield doesn’t have an HBCU experience,” she told McClatchy. “He does have experience working across a few organizations, and his self-published book is focused on inclusiveness. I wish him the best.”
Others on social media expressed similar concerns about his lack of familiarity with HBCUs.
Julianne Malveaux, former president of Bennett College, an HBCU in North Carolina, said Holifield's selection does not increase the black college community's confidence in the Trump administration.
“The 45th president has done little to earn the trust of the HBCU community; this appointment does not engender trust, but instead suggests a 'wait, see and hope for the best' attitude,” she told Inside Higher Ed.
Three Obama-era directors of the initiative, Kim Hunter Reed, John S. Wilson and Ivory Toldson, either graduated from or previously worked at HBCUs. Another HBCU alumnus, Charles M. Greene of Virginia Union University in Richmond, held the position in the final years of George W. Bush's administration.
Manigault Newman downplayed critics' concerns. “I don’t think you have to be from an HBCU to be a great manager and to carry out what’s been outlined in the executive order," she said.
Trump signed an executive order in February “to ensure equitable opportunities for HBCUs to participate in federal programs,” among other things.
But some lawmakers have expressed concerns about the depth of his commitment, as they can't point to tangible results from the gathering some dismissed as a photo opportunity for a president who has low favorability ratings with black Americans.
This week's “White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities Annual Summit” was reportedly scaled down and moved to a more secure location after the administration feared that those disappointed with Trump's recent words and policies related to race in the United States would protest the event.
Trump did sign a proclamation last week declaring this week National HBCU Week. The president is attending the United Nations General Assembly in New York this week and will not make an appearance at the summit.
Lawmakers, such as Rep. Alma Adams (D-N.C.), are hoping bringing Holifield on board means more action on their concerns.
“This appointment is a first step for the White House as they strive to repair their relationships with HBCU leaders and Members of Congress,” she said in a statement. “As co-chair of the Bipartisan HBCU Caucus, I extended an invitation to Mr. Holifield to come to Capitol Hill to learn more about the Caucus and our legislative priorities. I look forward to working with him to advance meaningful change for our HBCUs.”