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Johnson C. Smith president not happy with Trump’s initiative on black schools

U.S. Rep. Alma Adams (D-Charlotte) is introduced by Johnson C. Smith University President Ronald Carter as Adams announced in March that she will seek reelection.
U.S. Rep. Alma Adams (D-Charlotte) is introduced by Johnson C. Smith University President Ronald Carter as Adams announced in March that she will seek reelection. dhinshaw@charlotteobserver.com

Ronald Carter, president of Johnson C. Smith University, said he’s seen just what he expected to see so far from President Donald Trump’s initiative on historically black colleges and universities – nothing.

“There’s a statement attributed to a French philosopher who said that ‘The eyes cannot see what the mind doesn’t comprehend,’ ” said Carter, the outgoing head of the Charlotte university. “They haven’t begun to comprehend even who we are to see what can be done.

“They do not comprehend who we are, what we’re doing, and the value that we have for the country… otherwise we would not be having the inane conversation we’re having about what they have not done,” he added.

Carter made the comments after he appeared on a panel Thursday on the state of the nation’s 100-plus HBCUs organized by Rep. Alma Adams, D-Charlotte, as part of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s annual legislative conference in Washington.

HBCUs are any black college or university established before 1964 with the principal mission of educating African American students. Collectively, they enroll nearly 300,000 students and receive money from the federal government through grants, contracts, appropriations and financial aid.

Carter gave a more succinct answer when panel moderator April Ryan, White House correspondent for American Urban Radio Networks, asked Carter if a much-publicized February meeting with Trump that he and more than 60 other HBCU presidents and chancellors attended met his expectations.

“A one-word sentence: ‘No,’ ” he said.

Carter was equally unsparing in his assessment of Johnathan Holifield, a consultant and former National Football League player who Trump tapped Monday to serve as executive director for the White House HBCU initiative.

Beginning next month, Holifield will preside over an HBCU portfolio that will be moved from the Department of Education and into the White House as a sign of Trump’s commitment to the nation’s 100-plus black colleges and universities.

“I don’t know who he is,” Carter said. “I’m clueless about who he is. I’m trying to understand what the connection is. So I think it’s the responsibility of the White House to help us understand what the connection is.”

Holifield is an author, speaker, and cofounder of ScaleUp Partners, a consulting firm that provides “experienced insight and expertise to unleash a diverse pipeline of qualified workforce and entrepreneurial talent,” according to the company’s website.

Holifield’s LinkedIn page lists some HBCU experience as a content contributor and adviser to an HBCU conference on innovation. He worked with the Obama administration’s White House initiative on HBCUs, the Commerce Department’s Minority Business Development Agency and others to produce a concept paper titled “Strengthening the Technology Transfer Capacity of HBCUs.”

Like Carter, North Carolina A&T State University President Harold Martin, Sr., doesn’t know much about Holifield, who was a star running back at West Virginia University and played briefly for the NFL’s Cincinnati Bengals in 1989.

“He seems to be a bright man, well-educated, and I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt at this moment,” Martin said. “We’ll see if he’s able to deliver on our behalf. Bring him on board, and I’m prepared to work with him.”

Trump vowed to outdo Obama, the nation’s first black president, in supporting HBCUs. He signed an executive order in February in an Oval Office ceremony with black college presidents surrounding him.

But black college leaders and advocates were dismayed after the administration failed to quickly follow through on the order, including taking seven months to name a head for the HBCU initiative.

Several black college presidents and chancellors were criticized by their students, board members, and alumni for attending the meeting and for a hastily arranged photo of the executive order signing ceremony.

Carter attended the February meeting and said he has no regrets that he did. “I made a decision to go there, and what I thought would happen happened,” he said. “It was a photo-op.”

But now Carter, who leaves the Smith presidency in December, wants more from the White House.

HBCUs received $4.7 billion in federal financial assistance in 2013, according to the latest report available. That sum accounted for 2.8 percent of federal dollars awarded to all higher education institutions.

“We want a direct conversation with the director of the White House initiative to all of the agencies that can impact what we do in our living-learning communities,” Carter said. “We want them to be sensitive to the needs for federal financial aid for our students. That’s extremely important.

“And we want them to engage us on what the future of this country is going to be with the new population of students who must sing “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.”

William Douglas: 202-383-6026, @williamgdouglas

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