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Is there still hope for HBCUs as negotiations continue over Democrat's spending bill?


Earlier this year President Biden promised tens of billions of dollars to revitalize the infrastructure and research capabilities of historically Black colleges and universities. Now it appears just a fraction of that proposed spending may become reality as congressional Democrats continue to pare down the size of their social spending bill. Lodriguez Murray of the United Negro College Fund has urged Democratic lawmakers to do more, and he joins me now.


LODRIGUEZ MURRAY: Thanks so much, Sarah.

MCCAMMON: Your organization sent a letter to congressional Democrats outlining your priorities. What kind of a response are you getting so far?

MURRAY: Well, we think that we're making some progress. We haven't gotten an official response back in a letter, but all the tea leaves that we're seeing are showcasing that members of the Congress are seeing our concerns, and they're willing to work with us. You know, as you mentioned, the president signified that tens of billions of dollars should go to revitalize both historically Black colleges and universities and MSIs, minority-serving institutions, and those are groups of institutions like Hispanic-serving institutions.

And, you know, the whittling down of that pie from tens of billions of dollars to $2 billion was problematic because it wasn't enough to do the work. But I think that Congress is hearing us via students both at their protests as well as those that are writing letters - alumni, faculty, students and others that are writing letters to Congress - and our advocacy, grasstops, the presidents of the colleges reaching out to them. I think that we're finally starting to get heard, and I'm optimistic of a better outcome than what we saw in the original reconciliation package.

MCCAMMON: In recent days, students at historically Black colleges and universities in D.C. and Atlanta have been protesting housing conditions, including at your alma mater, Morehouse. Would the Democrats' spending package help to address some of their concerns?

MURRAY: Definitely. The spending package, if improved, will help ameliorate a lot of their concerns. And so in a strange twist of fate, students are asking for the same thing that we're asking for and, ironically, the same thing that the president asked for just a few months ago.

MCCAMMON: And yet there are political realities. As we've said, earlier this year President Biden promised tens of billions of dollars for HBCUs and other minority-serving institutions. But with each new cut to the Democrats' spending package, that number shrinks. How hopeful are you that funding for HBCUs will survive as these negotiations continue?

MURRAY: Very hopeful. I don't have any - no one has given me any certainty that that's what will happen. But the popularity of these institutions, as well as the fact that they produce such a great product - you know, HBCUs have produced household names from the Vice President of the United States to a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, 40% of all the Black members of Congress, 50% of judges. HBCUs produced them all. And so we have a great value proposition, and I'm very optimistic that Congress will do even better for us in the final product.

MCCAMMON: We're seeing some of the effects of underfunding right now with these student protests at HBCUs around aging buildings. But what are the long-term consequences if the Democrats' package fails to include much funding for these institutions?

MURRAY: Well, that would be debilitating for the institutions to not include the funding. HBCUs have been underfunded since their inception. And we're talking about institutions that are born out of a time when it was illegal for African Americans to learn.

And so the institutions are much like the people, African Americans. They've been underinvested in from inception, and they've faced numerous challenges. And so to not allow a group of institutions like that to actually have a shot at equity and a shot at actually putting aside the old adage in our community of doing so much with so little for so long and allowing those institutions the opportunity to actually see what they can do with a proper amount of funding would be demoralizing, hurtful to the community. But we're hopeful that we've hit a moment through our advocacy where that won't be possible.

MCCAMMON: That's Lodriguez Murray, senior vice president of public policy and government affairs at the United Negro College Fund.

Thank you for your time.

MURRAY: Thanks so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF VAMPIRE WEEKEND SONG, "OTTOMAN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.
Justine Kenin