Speaker 1: You're back with Melissa Harris-Perry and The Takeaway from WNYC and PRX in collaboration with WGBH Radio in Boston.
Alma Adams: You can't build that better, in my opinion, without building HBCUs that better. We are part of this whole infrastructure discussion we thought we ought to be.
Melissa Harris-Perry: That was Representative Alma Adams speaking on North Carolina's Capital Tonight back in September. Now, Representative Adams is a former Educator and a long-time advocate for historically Black colleges and universities. This year, she introduced the IGNITE HBCU Excellence Act, aimed at increasing both public and private investment in Black college infrastructure.
Various aspects of the legislation are included in the big infrastructure bills currently stalled in Congress. The tens of billions initially set aside for HBCU investment have shrunk dramatically during the reconciliation process. For more on this., we're joined now by Dr. Walter Kimbrough, president of Dillard University, a private HBCU in New Orleans. President Kimbrough, it is great to have you here.
Dr. Walter Kimbrough: Hi, Melissa. Good to hear from you.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Okay, President Kimbrough. I want to start with a very provocative question that was raised by my earlier guest. Now, she was talking with us about student protests at Howard University. At the end of our initial conversation about housing issues, she then raised this question.
Alma Adams: Is HBCUs needed?
Melissa Harris-Perry: President Kimbrough, how do you respond? Are HBCUs still necessary?
Dr. Walter Kimbrough: Yes. Honestly, I hate that question because it's nonsensical when you look at the oversized contribution that these institutions are making. Now, I listened to the segment and yes, there are funding issues and there's been unequal funding and support. I understand that. When you look at that, despite all of that, the contributions that these institutions and the alums make are just oversize in our nation. You need those.
You wouldn't have the numbers of Black scientists that we have today doing the kind of work that they're doing if it weren't for HBCUs. There's just a lot of different things. Just because there are those challenges, and I just say those challenges are a microcosm of what Black folks are dealing with in the entire country. Just to say, "Well, do we need that?" We can start asking, "Do we need Black everything? Do you need the Black church? Do you need--?" All kinds of stuff.
I think it's a nonsensical question that we should stop asking because there's enough proof that these institutions play a role. They aren't the only option, but they are a good option for a lot of young people.
Melissa Harris-Perry: There are currently 107 HBCUs in the country. They're about evenly divided between public and private institutions. Can you talk a little bit-- Obviously, folks may not know, but you've had a long career in HBCU leadership. Can you talk to me about infrastructure issues? In some ways what the Howard students are dealing with and students on many campuses is about this less about is the administration doing something bad, but the ways that there's been this systemic infrastructure under-funding over many decades.
Dr. Walter Kimbrough: Right. Exactly. There are two ways that people should look at it. For public institutions, there have been some systemic efforts by states to underfund those institutions. In the state of Maryland recently, this lawsuit that went on for about 12 years was settled, where the state is paying the public HBCUs there almost $600 million for underfunding.
There's a study out of Nashville, Tennessee that says Tennessee state has been systematically underfunded by the state of Tennessee to the tune of half a billion dollars alone. Those things have been happening. For private institutions, a lot of them were started church-related, really good intentions. You didn't have philanthropists saying, "I believe in these institutions, so I'm going to support them at a level that they can keep up with other institutions."
People didn't see them as equal and didn't see them as good investments. Once you got past the initial founding, when people really made a statement, particularly like the Freeman's Aid Association for the Methodist or the American Missionary Association. All of those groups made those initial investments, but over time, people didn't see the value. Those are the two really big pictures, but the other part is that we call these institutions our institutions.
I was on a panel with Ruth Simmons, who was the first Black Ivy League President, now president of Prairie View. She's a Dillon alumna. She was like, "We keep saying there are institutions, but we aren't giving back to our institutions." We have to take some blame for this too. If there are things that are not missing and a major white institution, somebody comes in with big money to say, "All right, we need new residence halls. I'm going to go build it. Here's the money for the new residence hall, put my name on it."
We don't do that. We complain about it and say, "All right, somebody needs to fix this. Somebody call Oprah." We've got to get out of that too. We've got to take more of a responsibility. There are systematic things that are happening that are under-funded, but we got to do our part too.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Okay. I hear you. That said, there's a reason that we say, "Call Oprah." She's like our one billionaire. There are also these meaningful wealth gaps, that the system is operating both on individual Black families, as well as on these institutions. I want to talk to you about then, where the federal government comes in. Because, again, we heard from Representative Adams, who put forward this bill that would have directed many billions in resources to help address this infrastructure problem. It looks like that's been pretty dramatically cut back. What has leadership at the HBCUs around the country attempted to do to maybe move those dollars forward?
Dr. Walter Kimbrough: Right. We've been very engaged. Dillard is one of the 37-member, UNCF institutions. We work very closely with UNCF to say, "How do we put on pressure for that HBCU IGNITE Act so that there is funding specifically for HBCUs as a part of infrastructure, which is something that president Biden ran on bigger than HBCUs? They're just infrastructure needs all across the nation. As you know, here in New Orleans, hurricane Ida knocks out the power for a major city where there is no power in New Orleans for three days, period.
Infrastructure is a universal issue that now we have the political fighting in Washington. Once you get Democrats in control, now, all of a sudden Republicans are saying they're conservative. Four years ago, they were like Rick Ross blowing money, fast. Everything Trump wanted, people were just spending money left and right. This always happens. That's why I always heard older presidents say, "HBCUs do better when Republicans are in power." That's because there are no fiscal conservatives when they were in power.
That what's going on. People are now saying, "Oh, we don't know if we can do the 3.5 trillion. Maybe it's just 1.5." We've got to put pressure, not only on them. Part of the narrative has been, "President Biden cut this money." No, he didn't. He did his job. His job is to present that. Now we got to lean on our brother, Bobby Scott, and the Education and Labor Committee and say, "Look, you all got to put more money in that budget."
We have to play a role in the advocacy part of this narrative. We aren't doing it always. We got a call. We have a website set up for UNCF IGNITE. You can go, and it's very easy. It takes you a minute. You can write, you can call, you can tweet your members of Congress to say, "We need this money for HBCUs." We got to play that role. That's a part of it because if they don't hear from us, they just do whatever they want to do.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I go back two presidents to President Obama and ask about the Parent PLUS Loan, situation, and the ways in which the changes that were made under the Obama administration, department of education, relative to Parent PLUS Loans, negatively impacted HBCUs. Can you walk us through that a little bit?
Dr. Walter Kimbrough: Sure. I'm going to make news because I'm going to say something controversial as a part of this too. When this happened around 2011, no one knew that this was happening. They made the change in terms of how your credit was evaluated in terms of being eligible for the Parent PLUS Loan. That disproportionately, not only affected HBCUs, but community colleges as well. Anybody that had large numbers of low-income students, that really hurt those institutions. We started to see people who normally got a Parent PLUS Loan being denied.
That's when we tried to figure out like, "What is going on?" That's when we figured out that they had made this rule change. For a couple of years, that impacted HBCU enrollment. On our campus, I had just gotten here. I think that we dropped probably about 150 students for a couple of years before it went back up. That was part of it. They apologized. Arnie Duncan called everybody personally saying, "Hey, we didn't handle this correctly." They modified that after a period of time.
But the long-term, their issue at the time, and this was also supported by the National Association of Financial Aid Administrators is that they felt like the Parent PLUS Loan was hurting families financially and placing them in debt that they cannot dig out of. While the institution saw a drop in the numbers, the overall idea was, "We're putting people in debt that aren't going to ever get out of that."
Within the last year or two, there've been a couple of national stories that particularly focus on the Parent PLUS Loan and Black families and how that loan program is actually hurting Black families. In our campus, we had a conversation. My vice president for enrollment management says, "The financial aid community is not excited about demodifying this because we're seeing this is harming families." Institutions didn't get the money for those students enrolled, but now you've got people who have these loans that they can't pay back.
It's a very complicated story. I don't think people look at it like that, but more recently the research indicates that loan program is really not good for people, particularly for Black folks. Because it wasn't really made for low-income people. It's made for upper-middle-class people to use, but you've got a large number of low-income folks using Parent PLUS Loan. It's a parent's loan. They can take out that loan and not use it for education at all, but they got a better chance of getting that loan and they do go on to Chase and get a bank loan.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Now, let's get to the Trump administration where HBCU presidents took more than a little bit of heat for a photograph in the oval office of President Trump. Tell me why HBCU presidents made that decision to go to that meeting.
Dr. Walter Kimbrough: I don't have time for the whole story, but we were going there under the guise of meeting with Secretary DeVos and members of the administration because she came in, of course, she didn't know much about a whole lot of stuff, but she definitely didn't know anything about HBCU. I gave her credit to say, she's coming in saying, "I know nothing about this sector. I need to get HBCU one-on-one." They set up different people to be able to talk about what the key issues were.
Since I'm the senior college president in Louisiana, I was going to talk about Pell Grants, but all that got cut out because Omarosa came up with this idea when we got there saying, "Hey, the president wants to see everybody out in the Oval Office." We knew it was a photo op, and we were told before we went there, that we would not be seeing him because he was preparing for his first-- It wasn't State of the Union yet, but joint address to Congress, so he had just gotten in. We weren't supposed to see him at all.
When I first heard about it, I wasn't going, because I didn't even want to be near that. We got hoodwinked when we got there, and I'm sitting in the room feeling sick like, "This is not going to go well." Omarosa set that up and got everybody in there, but no one knew that that was going to happen at that point. It was a photo op, and he starts to make press-- people try to call it a meeting. It wasn't a meeting. We walked in there, he made some small talk, we took pictures and we left. That's all that that was.
It wasn't anything substantial. That was almost part of a grand scheme because he kept going back talking about what he did for HBCUs and how he saved HBCUs. Maybe it was a part of a master strategy that they had, but that was the first salvo in this narrative that, "I've done more for HBCUs than anybody."
Melissa Harris-Perry: Just make it real to people, just talk to me about Dillard for a moment. If there was an allocation and investment of federal dollars in infrastructure on your campus, what would that mean? What kinds of things would you be able to have, and how might that change the experience for students, faculty, and staff?
Dr. Walter Kimbrough: Our situation is a little bit different because, in 2018, we had our Katrina loan forgiven, which was about 156 million. Of course, after the campus was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, we had a lot of infrastructure needs addressed at that point in time. You know New Orleans. New Orleans is an old city. There still are infrastructure issues that in terms of electrical connections to campus, in terms of water lines. We got a FEMA grant where we could do some hazard mitigation so the campus wouldn't flood as much.
Those are the kinds of things that we can do, but we still have roofs that need to be done because a lot of people came in after Katrina, they did shoddy work. I had just gotten here. I've been here a couple of years and we are talking about doing roofs over. I was like, "Y'all just did a roof 10 years ago. Why do you have to do a roof again?" We've got those infrastructure needs, but then even for us particularly after Ida, we're trying to figure out, "How do we create an infrastructure that deals with this new climate reality?"
We need money to address it on a-- I've been on some campuses, people just have buildings that are just falling down. We don't have any situations like that. A lot of buildings were renovated. We have some new buildings, I got a couple of residence halls. One that probably needs to be-- is old. We need to replace it. I got a couple like that, but for us, it's like, "How do we create a campus where we can sustain high category four, possibly a category five?" That's how I think about infrastructure now. It's on a different level here. Different areas have different, needs, but for us, there will be some physical space like housing, a couple of that I would replace, and then I would try to figure out, "How do we survive the next Ida without having to try to evacuate?"
Melissa Harris-Perry: You all listen, Dr. Walter Kimbrough and I have known each other a long time, but he always brings the analysis. Dr. Walter Kimbrough is the president of Dillard University. President Kimbrough, thanks for joining us.
Dr. Walter Kimbrough: Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.
[00:14:43] [END OF AUDIO]
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