There was an interesting moment in a White House briefing this week by Principal Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest. Earnest made a frank statement that President Obama had a “bias” for black colleges and universities. The statement produced an immediate backlash from some academics at non-historically black institutions. It was an honest moment and it is likely to be blown out of proportion by those who wrongly subscribe to the view that Obama dislikes whites, as stated this week by the Maine governor. However, the statement took many of us back in the academic world particularly when the question addressed all colleges and universities with regard to loans. I am pretty sure that Earnest was simply noting that the reduction of loans would affect these institutions significantly. However, various professors emailed me with the comment that spread like wildfire across academic channels. I think that the comment is being blown out of proportion and would have been less problematic with an additional line about the high vulnerability of these institutions to the loss of such revenue. Even that however would likely draw objections that schools, including law schools, are cutting back on staff and programs as revenues fall with applications across the country. Tough times understandable make for sensitive folk.
Here is the exchange:
Q Josh, since you’re talking about the President and the college tour, well, the tour that he’s having and college is one of the issues, and how college makes many persons middle class, within the middle-class status, there is an issue right now where HBCUs are very concerned and have petitioned the President for a meeting and petitioned the Department of Education about something called the Parent PLUS Loan. It’s a federal loan that has — now has strict requirements where parents are now being rejected. And many schools are losing money. Apparently if you have a blemish on your credit report over the last five years, you are not getting that loan. What is the President saying about this? Is he planning on meeting with these university presidents? And what is the Education Department going to do about this?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’m not aware of the specific meeting request, but I can certainly take a look into it.
The President and this administration have been strong supporters of historically black colleges and universities all across the country. Funding for those colleges and universities has increased under President Obama. And the President was pleased to have the opportunity earlier this spring to speak at the commencement at Moorehouse College down in Atlanta. So the record — the President’s record on these issues — he has a bias in favor of historically black colleges and universities because of the service they provide and because of the quality education that they provide to their students.
PLUS Loans allow parents to help pay for a child’s college through a fixed rate Federal loan. That has nothing to do with historically black colleges per se. Moreover, it was odd to have such a statement since Obama himself never went to a historically black college but went to Columbia University and Harvard Law School.
More importantly, it is unsettling for academics in this tough economy to have a spokesman state a presidential bias for black colleges and universities. I cannot understand his strong support for such institutions, though as an academic I prefer academic institutions that are not identified as catering to particular races or religions or genders. For that reason, I think that it is a good trend to see non-minority enrollments increasing at some of these schools. However, that issue and trend can be debated with good faith arguments on both sides. What should be clear is that any bias in favor of such institutions should have no place in a discussion of federal policy on loans affecting all universities. Earnest was speaking at the spokesman for the President of the United States. Ironically, non-traditionally black colleges and universities overwhelmingly supported the Obama Administration in fighting to use race as a criteria for admission. They all offer quality education to minorities and non-minorities alike.
The concern among educators is that such public statements of bias in favor of black colleges and universities sends a message to Education Department officials in prioritizing assistance to those institutions. Once again, I think that this was a stray comment for Earnest and obviously not meant to say that such a bias is relevant to the federal loan program. My assumption is that he was saying that such loans affect historically black colleges and universities the most due student populations coming from less affluent families. That is certainly a valid concern.
These are extremely difficult times for colleges and universities. It is important for the President to be seen as working equally for all academic institutions. I am willing to treat this statement as a frank acknowledgment by Mr. Earnest. However, sometimes the importance of being Earnest also the importance to be a bit circumspect.