Harris-Stowe president on recent White House visit: ‘If I don’t fight for my students, who will?'

Mar 9, 2017

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By now, you know the uproar over the photo: Kellyanne Conway with her feet on the Oval Office couch. While Conway has asserted she meant no disrespect, a huge amount of attention was diverted to that moment from what the actual event was about: A meeting of leaders of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) with President Donald Trump.

What were they meeting about and what did they discuss? Harris-Stowe State University President Dwaun Warmack knows intimately: he was in the room (and, indeed, in the now-infamous picture) to meet with President Trump. In fact, Warmack was in D.C. for a lot more: he met with legislators and Cabinet leaders in order to drum up support and money for financially struggling HBCUs.

Last week, President Trump signed an executive order related to HBCUs. The order moves the governance of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities from the Department of Education to direct supervision from the White House. Every president before Trump has also signed executive orders related to HBCUs, pledging support for the financially stressed institutions.

Harris-Stowe State University is one of two HBCUs in Missouri, the other being Lincoln University in Jefferson City.

Warmack said he felt optimistic about the meeting and the executive order, feeling White House governance gives HBCUs leverage to get funding. Although some have called the meeting a photo opportunity, Warmack said it was much more than that to him. 

“Our bigger piece is: if you’re not at the table, then you’re on the menu,” Warmack said. “For us to be at the table in the White House, we have a stronger voice. If we have to report through three different layers sometimes your message can get lost. It is not a knock on who is the Secretary of Education but it is a focus on the mission and ensuring 300,000 students have that chance.”

He said that the photo opportunity itself came after 30 minutes of conversation in the Oval Office with President Trump and was followed up with conversations with the Vice President and the Departments of Agriculture, Education and Defense about funding opportunities and work opportunities for HBCU graduates.

While the executive order on HBCUs does not confirm more funding, Warmack is hoping that legislators will approve a funding package of around $25 billion for HBCUs. While he acknowledges that is a large number, he said: “A lot is relative if you compare it to the entire budget of the United States of America.”

Harris-Stowe is facing a $1 million budget shortfall this year due to Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens’ budget cuts to higher education. Warmack recently met with Greitens about funding for higher education, and said he understood why the cuts happened, but had not received a promise of more funding.

If a federal funding package is approved, which Harris-Stowe would only see a part of, it would help give more scholarships to students, recruit better faculty and help with expanding and updating lab facilities, Warmack said.

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Harris-Stowe has increased enrollment by 24 percent this year, the third year of enrollment growth. Warmack said that 80 percent of students are first-generation college attendees and 78 percent of students are Pell Grant-eligible, which means keeping college affordable is important — that’s where funding for scholarships comes in. Warmack also said that due to the $1 million shortfall, he may have to look at cutting faculty or raising tuition to compensate

Of St. Louis’ 2.3 million residents in the St. Louis region, there are about 577,000 African-American residents. Some 370,000 of those residents are over the age of 18 and 85 percent of that population does not have a Bachelor degree (95 percent do not have a Masters).

“We have multiple institutions here, but there’s still a sub-community that’s missing out,” Warmack said. “If that opportunity to educate the population is here, what would that do for the workforce, for the tax base? That’s our mission: to provide access and opportunity for underrepresented and underserved populations here.”

Warmack said that being in the Oval Office was a “transformational experience.”

“I’m a kid from the urban core of Detroit, Michigan, the first-generation to a single mother who had a GED,” Warmack said. “I’m the first in my family not just to graduate not just from college but to have a PhD. To have the opportunity to be in the White House, in the Oval Office, it was transformational. It gives hope. I’m able to go back to all of the kids in Jennings, in St. Louis Public Schools and Riverview Gardens: this could be you as well.”

But that doesn’t mean he isn’t ready to see more action.

“I have a responsibility to fight and advocate for the students at my institution,” Warmack said. “If I’m not fighting for them, who else will? If I’m not at the table to have conversation ... the jury is still out. It has been less than two weeks. Things have to go through the House, through the Senate, the budget has to be created, passed … we’re early. Once that process happens and nothing happens, that’s when conversation happens. Individuals have promised us support and if support doesn’t happen we can say ‘hey, you didn’t do it.’”

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