KEY INSIGHTS

  • President Biden is giving the commencement speech at South Carolina State University
  • It marks a major moment for the HBCU and is a sign of the relationship between the President and SC Rep. Jim Clyburn
  • But the speech comes at a time when HBCU advocates and students have been critical of the Biden administration's approach to the schools

Adapted from this week’s HBCU newsletter. Sign up NOW to make sure you get exclusive HBCU videos, news and analysis in your inbox every Wednesday morning.


Friday marks a day of firsts as President Joe Biden gives the commencement speech at South Carolina State University's December graduation. It is the first time a sitting U.S. president has ever been graduation speaker in the school’s 125-year history, marking a major moment for an HBCU that just six years ago was almost shut down by state lawmakers.


“I think that it’s impressive that President Joe Biden is speaking at our commencement. To land the president, it’s a mark of prestige,” Roderick Bishop, one of the 138 students graduating this fall, said. 


It is also the first time Biden has been back to the Palmetto State since becoming president. Rep. Jim Clyburn, one of the most powerful Democrats in Congress and an alum of SCSU, had been slated to give the address, but asked Biden to do it instead. 


“I called the President of South Carolina State and I decided to play with him a little bit,” Rep. Clyburn told reporters on a call this week.


“I said, ‘Mr. President, I was just calling to let you know that I've done some thinking about this commencement address and I don’t think that I would be a good speaker for the commencement. It was dead silence on the other end,” Clyburn recounted.


“‘I decided that the President of the United States would be a better speaker.’ And there was still the silence. So I said, ‘Mr. President, are you there?’ ‘Yes, I'm here. I'm just trying to figure out what you just said to me.’ And I said, ‘I'm saying that President Biden is ready to do your commencement address in my stead.’ He said, ‘I thought that's what you said!’” 


The ask-and-you-shall-receive nature of Clyburn's relationship with Biden was cemented back in February 2020, when he endorsed then-candidate Biden in what was a crowded field during the early days of the Democratic primary. Following that endorsement, Biden won decisively in South Carolina, which eventually paved his way to the presidency.


But the commencement speech also comes at a time when HBCU advocates and students have been critical of the Biden administration's approach to the schools. 


In the September version of the Build Back Better Act, a bill that could expand access to education, pre-k, healthcare, parental leave and more through federal subsidies, HBCUs and other minority-serving institutions (MSIs) would have had access to about $30 billion in funding, but at the time HBCU advocates said that was not enough.


Democratic Rep. Alma Adams, one of the staunchest advocates of HBCUs in Congress, threatened to vote against the bill because she felt the level of funding was inadequate and it would force HBCUs to compete against hundreds of other schools for research grants.


In the version that passed the House in late November, however, the $30 billion was cut to $10 billion, though Rep. Adams voted for the lower funding amount and dozens of HBCU leaders are pushing the Senate to pass the bill. Despite their current support, they want to see more funding for HBCUs come in the next few years.


Misinformation has also spread about the Biden administration cutting funding to HBCUs. While fact checkers debunked that and in October the White House put out a statement correcting the record, for some the damage was already done.


HBCU advocates are especially critical of the fact that the administration still has not named an executive director to the White House Initiative on HBCUs. 


While the President has been setting up his advisory board on HBCUs, with Tennessee State University President Glenda Glover selected this Wednesday as the vice chair of the board, they provide insights and recommendations to the White House. 


But the initiative that runs the programs for HBCUs has been without a leader since January, though Biden’s predecessor had appointed an executive director for the HBCU initiative 10 months into his first term.


"We will continue working with HBCUs, HBCU leaders, representatives, students, and alumni to advance educational equity, excellence, and opportunity, and we look forward to welcoming an executive director in the near future. In the interim, we will continue to be led by strong, acting leadership on these efforts," an Education Department spokesperson told The Plug.


But Clyburn says it is not yet fair to judge Biden.


“Eleven months that he's been President. I don't expect him to do everything in 11 months, we’ve got three more years,” Clyburn said.


While Biden speaking at SCSU is an exciting moment for the hardworking students and faculty, in the coming years, HBCUs still need to see him walk the walk, not just talk.