Many Historically Black Colleges & Universities (HBCUs) were founded as Normal Schools (focused on teacher education) or A&M or A&T Schools (focused on agriculture, technical and mechanical education). In fact, thanks to Sen. Justin Morrill (R-Vt.) many of our schools were created as land-grant institutions under his now famous Second Morrill Act of 1890. This legislation stipulated that African Americans were to be included in the original land grant system without discrimination.
Today, HBCU agriculture schools remain a centerpiece of black college value to the nation and to the world. The 19 HBCU land-grant institutions are among the strongest in the HBCU ecosystem, produce a substantial share of the graduates who establish successful small businesses, and provide this country a robust and talented pipeline of highly qualified diverse talent.
With President Trump’s announcement of his intention to nominate Sam Clovis as Under Secretary of Agriculture for Research, Education, and Economics at USDA, it is a hire that the HBCU sector, and the nation, should view with great optimism. While his active engagement with the Trump campaign is the obvious reason for his appointment, Clovis also has a compelling set of experiences that include serving as a member of the U.S. Air Force, a professor at Morningside College and Iowa State University and as a senior-level strategy consultant in one of the country’s most respected consulting firms, Booz Allen.
More importantly for the black community is the fact that Clovis realized the value that HBCUs could play in shaping today’s global economy early on.
The Thurgood Marshall College Fund was very deliberate in our bipartisan outreach during the 2016 presidential election. We made official contact to every candidate running for president of the United States on behalf of our 47 publicly-supported member-schools. We wanted to be a resource; we wanted the fund and the issue of HBCU support to be apart of the campaign conversation.
To his credit, Clovis was one of the first to approach the Thurgood Marshall College Fund during this past 2016 election cycle seeking ways for black colleges to build their capacity in the agriculture sector and to contribute to the workforce needs of the growing industry.
He shared with me his view that “agriculture needs HBCUs for it to be successful in an increasingly more diverse America” and that, while the agriculture sector misses out on at least 20,000 graduates each year who do not enter agricultural fields, HBCUs could play a critical role in filling that talent deficit. It was so refreshing to hear someone speak not in charitable and historical terms about the importance of HBCUs, but in contemporary value-added, mission-critical terms.
Historically, the fund has had a very good working relationship with USDA no matter the political party in power. Candidly, many in our community were, and some still are, skeptical about the new team of public servants working in the Trump administration. In Clovis, the black college community has another advocate and someone who has already shown a willingness to first listen, gain an understanding, collaborate and find solutions. That is what you call good government and an excellent public servant.
By 2050, Earth will need to provide food for more than 9 billion people, and the urgency of this reality demands for higher education to become a much more active partner with the USDA. HBCUs have earned the right to be a part of this partnership, and Clovis was an advocate for this notion long before many economists and culturalists began suggesting diversity as an essential element of America’s industrial future.
Of course, there will be challenges and opposition to Clovis if he’s appointed. And that’s a healthy part of democracy. But a strong economy is the single biggest asset in any pure function of American democracy, and with Clovis at the USDA, we can rest assured that American agriculture will continue to be a global force in the world’s oldest and most necessary industry, and that HBCU’s will continue to play a role in our nation’s promising and ever expanding agricultural future.
Johnny C. Taylor, Jr. is the president and CEO of Thurgood Marshall College Fund (TMCF), the largest organization exclusively representing the black college community. Prior to joining TMCF, he spent many years as a successful corporate executive and attorney. Follow him on Twitter at @JohnnyCTaylorJr.
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