9/27 Remarks by the President at the Congressional Black Caucus Awards Dinner

REMARKS BY THE PRESIDENT

AT CONGRESSIONAL BLACK CAUCUS AWARDS DINNER

  Walter E. Washington Convention Center

  Washington, D.C.

9:06 P.M. EDT

THE PRESIDENT:  Hello, CBC!  (Applause.)  Thank you so much.  Everybody, have a seat.  It is good to be with you here tonight.  If it wasn’t black tie I would have worn my tan suit.  (Laughter.)  I thought it looked good.  (Laughter.)

Thank you, Chaka, for that introduction.  Thanks to all of you for having me here this evening. I want to acknowledge the members of the Congressional Black Caucus and Chairwoman Marcia Fudge for their outstanding work.  (Applause.)  Thank you, Shuanise Washington, and the CBC Foundation for doing so much to help our young people aim high and reach their potential.

Tonight, I want to begin by paying special tribute to a man with whom all of you have worked closely with; someone who served his country for nearly 40 years as a prosecutor, as a judge, and as Attorney General of the United States:  Mr. Eric Holder.  (Applause.)  Throughout his long career in public service, Eric has built a powerful legacy of making sure that equal justice under the law actually means something; that it applies to everybody — regardless of race, or gender, or religion, or color, creed, disability, sexual orientation.  He has been a great friend of mine.  He has been a faithful servant of the American people.  We will miss him badly.  (Applause.)

This year, we’ve been marking the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act.  We honor giants like John Lewis — (applause); unsung heroines like Evelyn Lowery.  We honor the countless Americans, some who are in this room — black, white, students, scholars, preachers, housekeepers, patriots all, who, with their bare hands, reached into the well of our nation’s founding ideals and helped to nurture a more perfect union.  We’ve reminded ourselves that progress is not just absorbing what has been done — it’s advancing what’s left undone.

Even before President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law, even as the debate dragged on in the Senate, he was already challenging America to do more and march further, to build a Great Society — one, Johnson said, “where no child will go unfed, and no youngster will go unschooled.  Where no man who wants work will fail to find it.  Where no citizen will be barred from any door because of his birthplace or his color or his church.  Where peace and security is common among neighbors and possible among nations.”  “This is the world that waits for you,” he said.  “Reach out for it now.  Join the fight to finish the unfinished work.”  To finish the unfinished work.

America has made stunning progress since that time, over the past 50 years — even over the past five years.  But it is the unfinished work that drives us forward.

Some of our unfinished work lies beyond our borders.  America is leading the effort to rally the world against Russian aggression in Ukraine.  America is leading the fight to contain and combat Ebola in Africa.  America is building and leading the coalition that will degrade and ultimately destroy the terrorist group known as ISIL.  As Americans, we are leading, and we don’t shy away from these responsibilities; we welcome them.  (Applause.)  That’s what America does.  And we are grateful to the men and women in uniform who put themselves in harm’s way in service of the country that we all love.  (Applause.)

So we’ve got unfinished work overseas, but we’ve got some unfinished work right here at home.  (Applause.)  After the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, our businesses have now created 10 million new jobs over the last 54 months.  This is the longest uninterrupted stretch of job growth in our history.  (Applause.)  In our history.  But we understand our work is not done until we get the kind of job creation that means everybody who wants work can a find job.

We’ve done some work on health care, too.  I don’t know if you’ve noticed.  Thanks to the Affordable Care Act, we’ve seen a 26 percent decline in the uninsured rate in America.  (Applause.)  African Americans have seen a 30 percent decline.  And, by the way, the cost of health care isn’t going up as fast anymore either.  Everybody was predicting this was all going to be so expensive.  We’ve saved $800 billion — (applause) — in Medicare because of the work that we’ve done — slowing the cost, improving quality, and improving access.  Despite unyielding opposition, this change has happened just in the last couple years.

But we know our work is not yet done until we get into more communities, help more uninsured folks get covered, especially in those states where the governors aren’t being quite as cooperative as we’d like them to be.  (Applause.)  You know who you are.  It always puzzles me when you decide to take a stand to make sure poor folks in your state can’t get health insurance even though it doesn’t cost you a dime.  That doesn’t make much sense to me, but I won’t go on on that topic.  (Applause.)  We’ve got more work to do.

It’s easy to take a stand when you’ve got health insurance.  (Laughter and applause.)  I’m going off script now, but — (laughter) — that’s what happens at the CBC.

Our high school graduation rate is at a record high, the dropout rate is falling, more young people are earning college degrees than ever before.  Last year, the number of children living in poverty fell by 1.4 million — the largest decline since 1966.  (Applause.)  Since I took office, the overall crime rate and the overall incarceration rate has gone down by about 10 percent.  That’s the first time they’ve declined at the same time in more than 40 years.  Fewer folks in jail.  Crime still going down.  (Applause.)

But our work is not done when too many children live in crumbling neighborhoods, cycling through substandard schools, traumatized by daily violence.  Our work is not done when working Americans of all races have seen their wages and incomes stagnate, even as corporate profits soar; when African-American unemployment is still twice as high as white unemployment; when income inequality, on the rise for decades, continues to hold back hardworking communities, especially communities of color.  We’ve got unfinished work.  And we know what to do.  That’s the worst part — we know what to do.

We know we’ve got to invest in infrastructure, and manufacturing, and research and development that creates new jobs.  We’ve got to keep rebuilding a middle class economy with ladders of opportunity, so that hard work pays off and you see higher wages and higher incomes, and fair pay for women doing the same work as men, and workplace flexibility for parents in case a child gets sick or a parent needs some help.  (Applause.)  We’ve got to build more Promise Zones partnerships to support local revitalization of hard-hit communities.  We’ve got to keep investing in early education.  We want to bring preschool to every four-year-old in this country.  (Applause.)  And we want every child to have an excellent teacher.  And we want to invest in our community colleges and expand Pell Grants for more students.  And I’m going to keep working with you to make college more affordable.  Because every child in America, no matter who she is, no matter where she’s born, no matter how much money her parents have, ought to be able to fulfill her God-given potential.  That’s what we believe.  (Applause.)

So I just want everybody to understand — we have made enormous progress.  There’s almost no economic measure by which we are not better off than when I took office.  (Applause.)  Unemployment down.  Deficits down.  Uninsured down.  Poverty down.  Energy production up.  Manufacturing back.  Auto industry back.  But — and I just list these things just so if you have a discussion with one of your friends — (laughter) — and they’re confused.  Stock market up.  Corporate balance sheet strong.  In fact, the folks who are doing the best, they’re the ones who complain the most.  (Laughter and applause.)  So you can just point these things out.

But we still have to close these opportunity gaps.  And we have to close the justice gap — how justice is applied, but also how it is perceived, how it is experienced.  (Applause.)  Eric Holder understands this.  (Applause.)  That’s what we saw in Ferguson this summer, when Michael Brown was killed and a community was divided.  We know that the unrest continues.   And Eric spent some time with the residents and police of Ferguson, and the Department of Justice has indicated that its civil rights investigation is ongoing.

Now, I won’t comment on the investigation.  I know that Michael’s family is here tonight.  (Applause.)  I know that nothing any of us can say can ease the grief of losing a child so soon.  But the anger and the emotion that followed his death awakened our nation once again to the reality that people in this room have long understood, which is, in too many communities around the country, a gulf of mistrust exists between local residents and law enforcement.

Too many young men of color feel targeted by law enforcement, guilty of walking while black, or driving while black, judged by stereotypes that fuel fear and resentment and hopelessness.  We know that, statistically, in everything from enforcing drug policy to applying the death penalty to pulling people over, there are significant racial disparities.  That’s just the statistics.  One recent poll showed that the majority of Americans think the criminal justice system doesn’t treat people of all races equally.  Think about that.  That’s not just blacks, not just Latinos or Asians or Native Americans saying things may not be unfair.  That’s most Americans.

And that has a corrosive effect — not just on the black community; it has a corrosive effect on America.  It harms the communities that need law enforcement the most.  It makes folks who are victimized by crime and need strong policing reluctant to go to the police because they may not trust them.  And the worst part of it is it scars the hearts of our children.  It scars the hearts of the white kids who grow unnecessarily fearful of somebody who doesn’t look like them.  It stains the heart of black children who feel as if no matter what he does, he will always be under suspicion.  That is not the society we want.  It’s not the society that our children deserve.  (Applause.)  Whether you’re black or white, you don’t want that for America.

It was interesting — Ferguson was used by some of America’s enemies and critics to deflect attention from their shortcomings overseas; to undermine our efforts to promote justice around the world.  They said, well, look at what’s happened to you back home.

But as I said this week at the United Nations, America is special not because we’re perfect; America is special because we work to address our problems, to make our union more perfect.  We fight for more justice.  (Applause.)  We fight to cure what ails us.  We fight for our ideals, and we’re willing to criticize ourselves when we fall short.  And we address our differences in the open space of democracy — with respect for the rule of law; with a place for people of every race and religion; and with an unyielding belief that people who love their country can change it.  That’s what makes us special — not because we don’t have problems, but because we work to fix them.  And we will continue to work to fix this.

And to that end, we need to help communities and law enforcement build trust, build understanding, so that our neighborhoods stay safe and our young people stay on track.  And under the leadership of Attorney General Eric Holder, the Justice Department has launched a national effort to do just that.  He’s also been working to make the criminal justice system smarter and more effective by addressing unfair sentencing disparities, changing department policies on charging mandatory minimums, promoting stronger reentry programs for those who have paid their debt to society.  (Applause.)

And we need to address the unique challenges that make it hard for some of our young people to thrive.  For all the success stories that exist in a room like this one, we all know relatives, classmates, neighbors who were just as smart as we were, just as capable as we were, born with the same light behind their eyes, the same joy, the same curiosity about the world — but somehow they didn’t get the support they needed, or the encouragement they needed, or they made a mistake, or they missed an opportunity; they weren’t able to overcome the obstacles that they faced.

And so, in February, we launched My Brother’s Keeper.  (Applause.)  And I was the first one to acknowledge government can’t play the only, or even the primary, role in the lives of our children.  But what we can do is bring folks together, and that’s what we’re doing — philanthropies, business leaders, entrepreneurs, faith leaders, mayors, educators, athletes, and the youth themselves — to examine how can we ensure that our young men have the tools they need to achieve their full potential.

And next week, I’m launching My Brother’s Keeper Community Challenge, asking every community in the country — big cities and small towns, rural counties, tribal nations — to publicly commit to implementing strategies that will ensure all young people can succeed, starting from the cradle, all the way to college and a career.  It’s a challenge to local leaders to follow the evidence and use the resources on what works for our kids.  And we’ve already got 100 mayors, county officials, tribal leaders, Democrats, Republicans signed on.  And we’re going to keep on signing them up in the coming weeks and months.  (Applause.)  But they’re going to need you — elected leaders, business leaders, community leaders — to make this effort successful.  We need all of us to come together to help all of our young people address the variety of challenges they face.

And we’re not forgetting about the girls, by the way.  I got two daughters — I don’t know if you noticed.  (Laughter.)  African American girls are more likely than their white peers also to be suspended, incarcerated, physically harassed.  Black women struggle every day with biases that perpetuate oppressive standards for how they’re supposed to look and how they’re supposed to act.  Too often, they’re either left under the hard light of scrutiny, or cloaked in a kind of invisibility.

So in addition to the new efforts on My Brother’s Keeper, the White House Council for Women and Girls has for years been working on issues affecting women and girls of color, from violence against women, to pay equity, to access to health care.  And you know Michelle has been working on that.  (Applause.)  Because she doesn’t think our daughters should be treated differently than anybody else’s son.  I’ve got a vested interest in making sure that our daughters have the same opportunities as boys do.  (Applause.)

So that’s the world we’ve got to reach for — the world where every single one of our children has the opportunity to pursue their measure of happiness.  That’s our unfinished work.  And we’re going to have to fight for it.  We’ve got to stand up for it.  And we have to vote for it.  We have to vote for it.  (Applause.)

All around the country, wherever I see folks, they always say, oh, Barack, we’re praying for you — boy, you’re so great; look, you got all gray hair, you looking tired.  (Laughter.)  We’re praying for you.  Which I appreciate.  (Laughter.)  But I tell them, after President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, he immediately moved on to what he called “the meat in the coconut” — a voting rights act bill.  And some of his administration argued that’s too much, it’s too soon.  But the movement knew that if we rested after the Civil Rights Act, then all we could do was pray that somebody would enforce those rights.   (Applause.)

So whenever I hear somebody say they’re praying for me, I say “thank you.”  Thank you — I believe in the power of prayer.  But we know more than prayer.  We need to vote.  (Applause.)  We need to vote.  That will be helpful.  It will not relieve me of my gray hair, but it will help me pass some bills.  (Laughter.)

Because people refused to give in when it was hard, we get to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act next year.  Until then, we’ve got to protect it.  We can’t just celebrate it; we’ve got to protect it.  Because there are people still trying to pass voter ID laws to make it harder for folks to vote.  And we’ve got to get back to our schools and our offices and our churches, our beauty shops, barber shops, and make sure folks know there’s an election coming up, they need to know how to register, and they need to know how and when to vote.

We’ve got to tell them to push back against the cynics; prove everybody wrong who says that change isn’t possible.  Cynicism does not fix anything.  Cynicism is very popular in America sometimes.  It’s propagated in the media.  But cynicism didn’t put anybody on the moon.  Cynicism didn’t pass the Voting Rights Act.  Hope is what packed buses full of freedom riders. Hope is what led thousands of black folks and white folks to march from Selma to Montgomery.  Hope is what got John Lewis off his back after being beaten within an inch of his life, and chose to keep on going.  (Applause.)

Cynicism is a choice, but hope is a better choice.  And our job right now is to convince the people who are privileged to represent to join us in finishing that fight that folks like John started.  Get those souls to the polls.  Exercise their right to vote.  And if we do, then I guarantee you we’ve got a brighter future ahead.

Thank you, God bless you.  Keep praying.  But go out there and vote.  God bless America.  (Applause.)

END                9:29 P.M. EDT

Remarks by the First Lady in Commencement Address to Dillard University

REMARKS BY THE FIRST LADY

IN COMMENCEMENT ADDRESS TO DILLARD UNIVERSITY

UNO Lakefront Arena

New Orleans, Louisiana

 

10:33 A.M. CDT

MRS. OBAMA:  Oh, my goodness!  Good morning!

 AUDIENCE:  Good morning.

 MRS. OBAMA:  I am so happy to be here with you all.  I’m proud to be here in the Big Easy.  Look at you all!  (Applause.) You look good. 

 STUDENT:  You do too! 

 MRS. OBAMA:  Thank you.  (Laughter.)  I want to start by thanking Nicole for that very kind introduction and for sharing her story, which is not too unfamiliar to me — because they told me I couldn’t be where I am, too.  So I want to thank Nicole.  I’m proud of her.  Thank you for the selfie; I think that’s the first selfie I’ve done at a commencement.  So, Nicole, you’re my first.  (Laughter.) 

And of course, I want to thank the Dillard University Choir.  Oh, oh, oh!  (Applause.)  Oh!  That’s all I can say.  It’s like you want to start something up in here, right?  (Laughter.)  It’s like, now we got a commencement going on up in here.  (Laughter.)  That was beautiful, beautiful.  Thank you so much.  

I also want to recognize Senator Mary Landrieu, who is here.  Let’s give her a hand.  (Applause.)  She has been a strong supporter of this university. 

I want to thank the Dillard University Board of Trustees.  I want to thank the faculty, the staff, and, of course, your tremendous president, Dr. Walter Kimbrough.  (Applause.)  Now, my husband has been called a few things over the years, but he has never had the honor of being referred to as the “Hip Hop President.”  (Applause.) 

I also want to thank all the folks from the University of New Orleans for hosting us here today.  And I know they’re hosting the folks at Southern University at New Orleans for their commencement later on today as well, so we wish them a wonderful day.  And thank you for having us.  (Applause.) 

And of course, I’ve got to give a big shout-out to all the family members in the crowd, all of the family members — (applause) — especially to the mothers, because it is the day before Mother’s Day.  To all the mothers, Happy Mother’s Day.  (Applause.) 

Now, graduates, you all handled your business, right?  Just because you were graduating didn’t mean you — come on, now.  (Laughter.)  Okay, well, if you didn’t, you have my permission to get up and go right now, because there is nothing more important — no, no, don’t get up.  (Laughter.)  Your mothers would kill you if you got up at this moment.  (Laughter.)  So just stay in your seats, and when this is all over make sure you take care of mom.

But in all seriousness, to all the moms out there –- as well as the dads and the grandparents, the uncles, the aunts, the brothers, the sisters, all of you who have helped raise these graduates — you have seen them through their ups and downs, and you have poured your hearts and souls into these men and women.  So today is your day, too, and you should be very proud.  You really should.  (Applause.) 

And finally, most of all, I want to congratulate the beautiful and handsome men and women of the Dillard University Class of 2014.  Yay!  (Applause.)  You all have come so far, I know, to make it to this day — from all those early days when the girls were sneaking out of Williams Hall to go see the boys over at the Duals — oh yeah, I did my research — (laughter) — to all those tests you crammed for, to the plans you’re making now for your careers, to go on to graduate school.   

You all have seen so much.  You’ve witnessed this school’s rebirth after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina –- the new buildings that replaced the ones you lost, the classrooms that started filling back up again, the service projects that you all have done to help this community bounce back.  And I know along the way that each of you has written your own story of resilience and determination to make it here to this day.

For example, as you heard, Nicole was told back in high school that she just wasn’t college material.  But now she is your class president, and she’s headed off to Yale for her graduate degree.  So there.  (Applause.)  That’s it. 

And I know that some of you may come from tough neighborhoods; some of you may have lost your homes during Katrina.  Maybe you’re like DeShawn Dabney, a graduate who was raised by his grandmother — (applause) — maybe — that’s your grandmother, isn’t it, DeShawn?  (Laughter.)  Raised by his grandmother while some of his family members were dealing with issues.  Maybe just like him, you’ve been working part-time jobs since you were a teenager to make your dream of going to college come true.  And now, today, you’re all here ready to walk across this stage and get that diploma.

And no matter what path you took to get here, you all kept your hearts set on this day.  You fought through every challenge you encountered, and you earned that degree from this fine university.  And in doing so, you are following in the footsteps of all those who came before you, and you have become an indelible part of the history of this school –- a history that, as you all know, stretches back to well before the Civil War, back to 1826, the year a child named Emperor Williams was born. 

Now, Emperor was born into slavery.  But as he grew up, he managed to teach himself to read and write well enough to create a pass that allowed him to come and go around the city without getting hassled.  But one day, his master saw the pass and he said, where did you learn to write like that?  Now, just imagine the fear Emperor must have felt when he heard that question — because remember, back then it was illegal for a slave to learn to read or write.  So who knows what kind of punishment he may have gotten –- a beating, a whipping, even worse. 

We don’t exactly know what happened on that day, but we do know that when Emperor turned 32, after more than three decades in bondage, he became a free man.  He decided to stay in New Orleans, and he went on to become a minister — even founded a church right here in town.  And in 1869, when abolitionists, missionaries, black folks and white folks came together to create a school for freed slaves here in New Orleans, Emperor was one of the original signers of the charter.  

They decided to name the school New Orleans University, because even though most of the classes would be taught at a high school level or below, oh, their aspirations were much higher than that.  And when they laid the cornerstone for that university’s first building down on St. Charles Avenue, Emperor got a chance to speak. 

He said — and these are his words — he said, “For twenty years I was a slave on these streets.  It was a penitentiary offense to educate a Negro.  I have seen my fellow-servants whipped for trying to learn; but today here I am [am I], speaking where a building is to be erected for the education of the children of my people.”  He goes on to say, “I wonder if this is the world I was born in.”

See, in the course of his short lifetime, Emperor saw education go from being a crime for black folks to being a real possibility for his kids and grandkids.  So no wonder he was asking whether this was the same world he’d been born into.  See, for a man like Emperor, getting an education could open up a whole new world of opportunity.  An education meant having real power.  It meant you could manage your own money.  It meant you couldn’t get swindled out of land or possessions when somebody told you to just sign on the dotted line; sometimes even determined whether or not you could vote. 

So most folks back then saw education as the key to real and lasting freedom.  That’s why, when New Orleans University and the other African American college in town, Straight University, first opened their doors, one of the biggest problems they faced was too many students.  That’s right –- too many students.  Many of these students barely spoke English; they’d grown up speaking Creole or French.  Few had ever seen the inside of a classroom or even been taught their ABCs. 

But let me tell you, those students were hungry — you hear me?  Hungry.  They studied like their lives depended on it.  They blazed through their lessons.  And that hunger for education lasted for generations in the African American community here in New Orleans. 

When an arsonist set fire to the school’s library in 1877, they built a new one.  When those two original schools ran into financial troubles years later, they started making plans to build an even bigger and better university.  And in the 1930s, when white folks complained that this new school would mean too many black students on their buses, the folks at the school got the city to add a bus line just for their students, because nothing –- nothing –- was going to stop them from achieving the vision of those early founders.  (Applause.)   

And finally, in May of 1934, they broke ground for this school, Dillard University — (applause) — a university that would go on to produce some of the leading thinkers and achievers in our country.  And the day the cornerstone was laid for your library, the President of Howard University spoke these words:  He said, “There lies in this Southland today, buried in unmarked graves, many a black genius who would have blessed this city and this section of our country, if [only] his parents could have had before them the Dillard University you are now building.”

And in the years since then, through segregation and depression, through threats of violence and the floodwaters of a devastating storm, students like you have come here to study and to learn, and to carry forward those hopes and dreams.  And today, I stand before a sea of young geniuses.  Oh, yeah.  (Applause.) 

So, graduates, I hope that you understand that this day is not just the culmination of your own dreams, but the realization of the dreams of so many who came before you.  And you should be so proud, and so happy, and so excited about your futures.  But what you shouldn’t be is satisfied.  (Applause.)  See, because while it is a wonderful thing that all of you are here today, we have to ask ourselves, what about all those geniuses who never get this chance? 

I’m talking about the young people from right here in New Orleans and across the country who aren’t part of a commencement like this one today, kids no different from all of us, kids who never made it out of high school.  The fact is that today, the high school graduation rate for black students is improving, but it is still lower than just about any other group in this country.  And while college graduation rates have risen for nearly every other demographic, including African American women, the college graduation rate for African American men has flatlined. 

See, and the thing is, when our young people fall behind like that in school, they fall behind in life.  Last year, African Americans were more than twice as likely as whites to be unemployed.  They were almost three times as likely to live in poverty.  And they were far more likely to end up in prison or be the victims of violent crimes. 

Now, perhaps when you hear these statistics, you might think to yourself, well, those numbers are terrible, but I’m not part of the problem.  And you might be thinking that since you’re not one of those statistics, and you’re sitting here wearing that nice black robe today, you can go on your way and never look back. 

But folks like you and me, we can’t afford to think like that — never.  See, because we’re the lucky ones, and we can never forget that we didn’t get where we are today all on our own.  We got here today because of so many people who toiled and sweat and bled and died for us — people like our parents and grandparents and all those who came before them, people who never dreamed of getting a college education themselves but who worked, and saved, and sacrificed so that we could be here today.  We owe them.  (Applause.)  We owe them. 

And the only way to pay back that debt is by making those same kinds of sacrifices and investments for the next generation. And I know sitting here right now, that task could seem a bit overwhelming.  I know it could seem like the deck is stacked way too high against our young people.  And the truth is that some of the problems we face –- structural inequality, schools that lag behind, workplace and housing discrimination -– those problems are too big for one person to fix on their own. 

But that’s still no excuse to stand on the sidelines.  Because we know that today, education is still the key to real and lasting freedom — it is still true today.  So it is now up to us to cultivate that hunger for education in our own lives and in those around us.  And we know that hunger is still out there –- we know it. 

We see it in students like DeShawn and Nicole and all of you who scraped and clawed so you could make it to this day.  We see it in the single moms who work three jobs so their kids might have a shot at earning a degree like yours.  (Applause.)  We see that hunger all around the world — in that young woman named Malala who was shot on her school bus in Pakistan just for speaking out in support of girls getting an education, and the more than 200 girls kidnapped from their own school in Nigeria for wanting an education -– (applause) — young people who are knowingly risking their lives every day just to go to school. 

And in fact, you’ve seen that hunger right here at Dillard: your valedictorian, three salutatorians are all from Nigeria.  (Applause.)  They studied hard at an early age, earned scholarships to come here to this university, achieved 4.0 GPAs.  And now they are off pursuing master’s degrees, work in software development, teaching math and science to young people here in the United States.

See, now, that’s the kind of hunger for education that we have to reignite in all of our communities.  It’s the same hunger that gave life to this university, the same hunger that defined so many of our parents and grandparents — including my own.  You see, my parents never went to college, but they were determined to see me and my brother and all the kids in our neighborhood get a good education.  (Applause.)   

So my mother volunteered at my school — helping out every day in the front office, making sure our teachers were doing their jobs, holding their feet to the fire if she thought they were falling short.  I’d walk by the office and there she’d be.  (Laughter.)  I’d leave class to go to the bathroom, there she’d be again, roaming the halls, looking in the classrooms.  And of course, as a kid, I have to say, that was a bit mortifying, having your mother at school all the time. 

But looking back, I have no doubt that my classmates and I got a better education because she was looking over those teachers’ shoulders.  (Applause.)  You see, my mom was not a teacher or a principal or a school board member.  But when it came to education, she had that hunger.  So she believed that our education was very much her business. 

And we need more people who think and act like my mother, and all those mothers out there, because the education of our young people is all of our business.  That’s what Emperor Williams thought.  That’s what the folks here in New Orleans thought as they worked to rebuild this campus after Katrina.  And as graduates of Dillard University, that’s how we need you to think every single day for the rest of your lives.  

You all have opportunities and skills and education that so many folks who came before you never could have dreamed of.  So just imagine the kind of impact that you’re going to make.  Imagine how you can inspire those around you to reach higher and complete their own education.

And you can start small.  Start by volunteering at an after-school program, or helping some high school kids fill out their college applications.  Show them the path that you took.  Or you can think a little bigger — you can get your entire congregation or your community to start a mentoring program; maybe convince your new employer to sponsor scholarships for underprivileged kids.  Or maybe you could think a little higher — maybe you could run for school board or Congress, or, yes, even President of the United States.  (Applause.)   

And then maybe you could build preschools for every single one of our kids.  Maybe you could help turn that pipeline to prison into a highway to college; help give every child in America an education that is truly worth of their promise.  Those are the kind of big dreams that folks who founded this university reached for.  That is how high they set their bar. 

And so we owe it to those folks –- the folks who had the audacity to call their little schools “universities” and name their baby boys “Emperor” –- we owe it to them to reach as high as they did, and to bring others along the way.  As the history of this school has taught us, no dream is too big, no vision is too bold; as long as we stay hungry for education and let that hunger be our North Star, there is nothing, graduates, nothing that we cannot achieve. 

So, graduates, that is your mission.  This is your obligation.  I want you to keep reaching higher.  I want you all to keep raising your bars.  Let the next generation know that there is no greater investment than a good education.  And if you do all of this, then I am confident that you will uphold that duty and write your own chapter into the legacy of this great university.  And let me tell you something, I cannot wait to see the world that your children will be born into.  

Congratulations.  I love you all.  I am honored to be here.  I am proud of you.  God bless you.  And thank your families.  (Applause.)

                     END                10:56 A.M. CDT

Remarks of U.S. Secretary of Education to the National HBCU Week Conference: The Enduring and Evolving Role of HBCUs

September 26, 2013

It is always important to me, and I always look forward to the opportunity to address the National HBCU Conference. This year in particular we are at a challenging, pivotal moment in supporting both the enduring and the evolving role of HBCUs.

Just four days from now, Republicans on Capitol Hill are threatening to shut down the government.

That is no way to win the race for the future. In a knowledge-based, globally-competitive economy, you won’t see nations that are out-educating us cutting funding for preschool, for hiring teachers, and for expanding college access. They are not managing their educational strategy via sequester—and I wonder why in America we continue to cut off our nose to spite our face.

On top of that grave threat to additional investment in preschool, K-12, and HBCUs, this has been a difficult year for HBCUs with PLUS loans.

I have talked with many of the people here in this room about the PLUS loan challenge. It has been hard, it has been frustrating, and I know some of you are angry.

I am not satisfied with the way we handled the updating and changes to the PLUS loans program. However, some have said we are choosing not to reverse the policy because we don’t care, and nothing—nothing—could be further from the truth.

Our department is required to carry out the law as it was designed to protect parents and taxpayers against unaffordable loans. But we could have and should have handled the process better.

Communications internally and externally was poor, and I apologize for that, and for the real impact it has had. That’s why we’ve announced that we will initiate a new rule-making process on this issue early next year.

Jim Shelton, our deputy secretary—and by the way, a proud Morehouse Man—will provide a more detailed update on the PLUS loans situation later this morning. This is personal for him—as it is for so many of our team and for me.

The good news is that we are making progress. But I continue to remain concerned about students and families who were denied loans and may still qualify for reconsideration, but have not yet applied.

We are committed to doing everything we can to make sure students get all of the financial aid they are eligible to receive. And we have communicated directly with applicants that we believe would benefit from having their application reconsidered.

Now, I am hoping that the very serious challenges of the moment will also provide the opportunity to reset the public dialogue on HBCUs.

I believe strongly that HBCUs must not just survive but thrive as we move ahead.

I believe strongly that HBCUs will continue to make enduring contributions to America—and that HBCUs must also evolve.

And I believe strongly that we must shift the narrative around HBCUs from one centered on management and operational challenges to a narrative centered on the collective commitment to creative investment and innovation.

Too many Americans are unfamiliar with the staggering accomplishments of HBCUs. Most of America’s civil rights giants were educated at HBCUs—Dr. King, W.E.B. DuBois, Rosa Parks, Booker T. Washington, and Thurgood Marshall.

In our time, Jesse Jackson, Andy Young, Barbara Jordan, Congressman John Lewis, Marian Wright Edelman, and Doug Wilder all earned their degrees at HBCUs.

Legendary artists and authors came out of HBCUs—Ralph Ellison, Alice Walker, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, and Toni Morrison.

Yet what is most impressive about the HBCU record is not just your famous alumni. It is that HBCUs, working with meager resources, almost single-handedly created an African-American professional class in the face of decades of Jim Crow discrimination.

Even today, more than a half-century after the demise of Jim Crow laws, HBCUs continue to have an outsized impact in educating black professionals.

We have over 7,000 institutions of higher education across the country, 106 of which are HBCUs. But in 2010, HBCUs still awarded a sixth of all bachelor degrees and professional degrees earned by African Americans in the U.S.

So, the tremendous historic role of HBCUs must endure—but it must evolve as well. To cite just one example, HBCUs must play a leading role in ensuring that America reaches President Obama’s goal of having the highest college attainment rate in the world by 2020.

The U.S. can only lead the world again in college attainment if an unprecedented number of Americans enroll in and complete college. If we want to strengthen families, if we want to strengthen communities, if we want to increase social mobility, the best way to do that is through educational opportunity.

The math here is pretty simple. To reach the President’s 2020 goal, student populations with high dropout rates—especially minority students—will have to exponentially increase their college graduation rates.

This is not just about access—this is about attainment. Nationwide, only about one in four—28 percent—of young black adults have received a college degree.

But we know that African Americans have the highest proportion of adults who have some college but not a degree of any major racial group. Almost 18 percent of African Americans aged 25 years and older—nearly one in five adults—went to college but left without their degree.

That college completion shortfall is both a tragic squandering of talent and an unprecedented opportunity to do better.

So, in the years ahead, we want HBCUs to continue to be known not just for their storied alumni but for leading the way for all institutions in educating and graduating African American college students.

We want HBCUs to be known not just for their illustrious legacy of inventors like George Washington Carver but for their ongoing contributions in the world of science, technology, engineering, and math.

We want HBCUs to be known not just for tailoring personal support for incoming minority students but to set the standard for other institutions in how to create a culture of completion for all students.

We want HBCUs to be known not only for their rich historical roots in teacher preparation but to show other institutions how to recruit and prepare a more diverse teaching workforce for the 21st century. All of our children benefit when they see more teachers of color and minority men in front of them in their classrooms.

And we want HBCUs to be known not just for their close ties to the community, but for innovatively adapting the lessons of meaningful collaboration and partnerships with K-12, community colleges, business, philanthropy, and international exchange programs.

Despite the very real challenges we all face, I have absolute confidence that this entrepreneurial evolution can happen—because I see it happening.

I’ve been to Hampton University and seen its cutting-edge Proton Therapy Institute for treating cancer. President Harvey’s vision there is extraordinary.

I’ve been to Morgan State, which, under President Wilson’s remarkable leadership, formed a groundbreaking partnership with the Universities Space and Research Alliance. Morgan State landed a $28 million contract—its biggest federal contract in history—to develop critical, cutting-edge expertise on climate issues and atmospheric science.

I’ve been to Xavier University, led by an icon, President Francis. Xavier awards more undergraduate degrees in the biological and physical sciences to African Americans than any university anywhere in the nation. It sends more African-American students to medical school than Harvard.

I’ve been to Fayetteville State, where Chancellor Anderson’s commitment to international education has led to the creation of dual-degree exchange agreements with five universities in China.

Last year, Fayetteville students could take a course in educational psychology and measurement taught concurrently by video to students at Baotow Teachers College in Inner Mongolia, China. And students from around the world come to see FSU’s Electron Microprobe—a rare, state of the art microscope.

At Morgan State, the university has created new exchange programs with Brazil. As President Wilson says, “Students today are waist-high in the water of globalization… To be the leaders [our] nation demands, they will need to speak the critical languages and understand the history of culture and nations different from their own… We do not live in silos anymore.”

I couldn’t agree more. We don’t live in silos anymore. And that’s one reason that innovations at HBCUs that reduce college costs and accelerate the path to a degree are so promising for all institutions of higher education.

Fayetteville State, for example, offers the only accelerated Masters of Social Work program in the country. The students in that program are full-time active duty members at Fort Sam Houston. They are paid by the Army to pursue their MSW degree six hours a day, five days a week.

And through distance learning, those off-site students are completing their requirements for a master’s degree in just one year instead of two. It’s a less expensive path to a degree—and it gives the Army more of the social workers it needs, faster.

When I spoke at the Fayetteville State commencement, two of the graduates had been the valedictorian and salutatorian at FSU’s on-campus Early College High School. Those students graduated from Fayetteville with degrees in criminal justice and mathematics barely two years after enrolling in college.

I’ve visited Howard University’s Middle School of Mathematics and Science—the dynamic, groundbreaking charter school that Howard established on its campus.

And Howard’s leaders didn’t stop there—they created the Ready to Teach program as well, which prepares African-American men to become teachers in five urban school districts.

When I was CEO of the Chicago Public Schools, I visited too many of our 500 elementary schools that did not have a single black male teacher. How can that be a good thing for young children, especially our boys?

With less than two percent—less than 1 in 50—of our nation’s teachers being black males, we need to support and expand programs like Ready to Teach.

Since 2007, Howard’s Ready to Teach program has received 780 applicants for 80 slots. Already, it has produced four teachers-of-the-year—and in the process helped dispel the destructive misconception that teaching schoolchildren is a profession somehow reserved for women.

The truth is that, from Philander Smith College in Arkansas to Elizabeth State University in North Carolina, HBCUs have shown how to teach first-generation college students the habits of success. You have been pioneers of smart retention strategies and accelerated developmental instruction.

Only at HBCUs are the president, the faculty, and the support staff most often like a second family to students.

The story at Morgan State is typical of that personalized, strategic approach to student support. Morgan State tracks students’ progress from the moment they set foot on campus. If a student doesn’t do well on a quiz or test, a counselor calls to make sure he or she is taking advantages of all the support services that MSU provides.

President Wilson unapologetically calls it “intrusive intervention”—and coupled with care and support, it works. In 2010, the one-year retention rate of MSU freshmen2010 increased five percentage points. This is a key strategy that other institutions of higher education can learn from to boost graduation and retention rates.

Jim Shelton is thrilled to be attending the HBCU Innovation Summit at the end of October. Michael Lomax and UNCF will host this inaugural national summit at Stanford University in Silicon Valley to help launch the HBCU Center for Innovation, Commercialization and Entrepreneurship.

HBCU presidents will attend—and 10 HBCUs are sending teams comprised of Deans, faculty, and students to share national best practices for enhancing the entrepreneurial capacity of HBCUs.

At the federal level, we are targeting additional funding to HBCUs to promote and support innovation. Last week, our Department awarded three-year Minority Science and Engineering Improvement Program grants totaling almost $1.5 million to Florida A&M University and Texas College to increase the number of STEM students who enroll in and graduate in the STEM disciplines.

Texas College plans to use the federal dollars to revise their first-year and second-year STEM curriculum and to physically renovate classroom labs in Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Mathematics, and Computer Science.

Last week, we also awarded a $200,000 grant to Southern University in Baton Rouge to develop and validate a service model for increasing employment and integration into the community of African-Americans with disabilities.

I want to be absolutely clear: Support for innovation at HBCUs should be government-wide, and not just from the Department of Education. I’m excited that the Department of Energy awarded $9 million to nine HBCUs in South Carolina and Georgia to develop academic programs that promote minority involvement in STEM fields, especially in environmental management.

And just yesterday, the National Institutes of Health announced it has awarded planning grants to five HBCUs, totaling almost one million dollars in its new NIH BUILD initiative.

The NIH’s BUILD Consortium aims to increase the diversity of the NIH-funded workforce by boosting the enrollment of underrepresented college graduates in biomedical research and graduate training.

Fisk University is planning to use its NIH grant to build on its innovative Master’s-to-PhD Bridge program. It is going to launch a computer science Master’s degree program with a bridge to Vanderbilt’s PhD program in biomedical informatics.

Now, I am not at all naïve about the very real challenges that many HBCUs face in becoming leading centers of innovation, entrepreneurship, STEM research, and international education.

Too often at HBCUs, endowments are undercapitalized. Faculty salaries are low. And facilities are in need of repair.

Far too few students arrive on campus truly ready for college-level coursework. The need for remediation and support is huge. And when college presidents have to scramble to pay the utility bills, it is hard to find money for technology innovation and competency-based education.

These are daunting challenges. Yet even in a world with limited resources and underprepared students, HBCUs—just like other postsecondary institutions—vary significantly in their performance.

Leadership—your individual and collective leadership—matters. Some HBCUs are doing an amazing job of getting students in a cap-and-gown on graduation day, while others have work to do.

Some HBCUs are doing a good job of managing student debt and default—while other institutions have significant room for improvement.

I know that some of you are concerned that the college ratings system President Obama has asked our Department to develop will fail to take account of the special challenges facing HBCUs.

I can assure you that will not be the case—and let me tell you why.

As you know, President Obama assigned our Department to develop a college ratings system for the start of the 2015 school year. Under his plan, the college ratings system would be used to transform the way federal student aid is awarded to students, starting in 2018.

When President Obama unveiled his plan, he proposed a new idea that marks a major break from the past—and one that, I believe, actually elevates the value of effective and improving HBCUs.

President Obama said the federal government should “rate colleges based on opportunity: Are they helping students from all kinds of backgrounds succeed, and that [we should rate colleges] on outcomes—on their value to students and parents.”

We come to this important, complex work with great humility, and we will need your expert advice and best thinking. Over the course of the next year, we are going to solicit input on the ratings systems from literally hundreds and hundreds of stakeholders, including HBCU leaders, students, and parents.

We don’t begin to know yet all the metrics that will form the ratings system. But we do know that it will rely on multiple measures—not one or two crude measures of college value.

And we know that we’ll be seeking to make apples-to-apples comparisons of institutions, not apples-to-oranges comparisons. That is hugely important.

The ratings, in other words, will compare colleges with similar missions—and identify colleges that do the most to help students from disadvantaged backgrounds and colleges that are improving their performance.

We are interested in the progress schools are making. We want to reward institutions that are performing well—and demonstrating their commitment to improvement. Frankly, we are much more interested in where you are going than in where you have been. We’ll be looking, for example, at how successful colleges are at enrolling and graduating students who benefit from the Pell Grant program.

As President Obama put it, his “firm principle [is] that our ratings have to be carefully designed to increase, not decrease, the opportunities in higher education for students who face economic or other disadvantages.”

I don’t think any American president has articulated that standard for assessing college performance and value—and it is a standard that I think HBCUs should welcome.

I want to conclude by talking briefly about the future of HBCU funding—and the fierce budget battle now underway in Congress, even as we speak.

I very much share your frustration and concern about what the future holds for education funding, for minority students, and for all our nation’s students’ ability to go receive the education they need and deserve.

During the Administration’s first term, President Obama succeeded in securing large increases in higher education funding. Including Federal Student Aid, the Department’s overall support for HBCUs increased more than 40 percent from 2007 to 2012, from $3 billion to over $4 billion.

Since 2007, the Department has invested over $600 million in institutional loans for capital projects at HBCUs under the HBCU Capital Finance Program.

As you know, President Obama fought for and won a historic commitment to fully fund Pell Grants. Thanks to that victory, over the next decade, nearly 200,000 additional Pell Grant awards will go to African American students, and 20,000 of those will go to students at HBCUs.

Since the beginning of the Administration, Pell revenue to HBCUs is up almost 40 percent, from $608 million in 2008 to $835 million today.

Yet as important as this infusion of support was in the midst of the Great Recession, it wasn’t enough. In a perfect storm of budget cuts, states slashed their support for higher education even more. Congress, in the ultimate act of dysfunction, followed by imposing the sequester. And now Congress is threatening to continue squeezing funding for higher education.

In his 2014 budget, President Obama requested over $228 million in funding for HBCUs. But the Republican-controlled House of Representatives has refused to take up the President’s budget.

The fact is that Washington is currently engaged in a bitter battle over two competing theories of education and its relationship to economic growth. And the outcome of this debate has enormous consequences for our children, our economic competitiveness, and for HBCUs.

President Obama and I firmly believe that the path to prosperity lies in smart investments in education and infrastructure. We believe that education is not just an expense but is the nation’s main engine for long-term economic growth. We believe it is the best investment we can make—in our young people, in our communities, in our nation.

The competing theory, of House Republicans and Tea Party leaders, is that the path to job creation and economic growth is simple—it is the advocates’ self-described, three-word plan: Cut, cut, cut.

They contend that economic growth will actually come from cutting government spending, cutting regulation, and cutting taxes. For them, education is just one more line on the government ledger that can be indiscriminately cut.

Unlike GOP governors outside of Washington, the cut-cut-cut legislators do not believe education is a necessary investment both to sustain economic growth and to create a path into the middle class.

When I started this job, almost five years ago, I never imagined that one day I would have to fight to try to dissuade members from Congress from cutting Head Start for three-year olds and four-year olds—even as they insist on the economic need to maintain tax breaks for the rich.

So, we are at the proverbial fork in the road: We will either support early childhood education, K-12 reform, and greater access to higher education, or we will allow other countries to out-educate and out-compete us. The stakes here are high. Please let Congress know what you believe—is education an expense or an investment?

As we head into this important debate, I am so fortunate to have a great team working with me on behalf of HBCUs.

Dr. Ivory Toldson, our new Deputy Director of the White House Initiative on HBCUs, is a prolific young scholar and myth buster. He has courageously debunked research and media coverage that perpetuates misleading stereotypes about African Americans. And he is a champion of increasing opportunities for black men, including teaching opportunities.

And I couldn’t be happier that our new Executive Director of the White House Initiative, Dr. George Cooper, has agreed to lead our team.

Like Dr. Toldson, Dr. Cooper’s reputation precedes him. As the former president of South Carolina State University—and throughout his long, distinguished career in academia—Dr. Cooper has been a staunch and thoughtful advocate for HBCUs for over three decades.

Over the next three months, Dr. Cooper and Dr. Toldson will be reaching out to you, making visits, and hosting important conversations to make sure we are hearing your ideas, your concerns, and getting your input and guidance. Don’t be shy—I know you won’t.

I’m going to turn this over to Dr. Cooper now. Please give him and Dr. Toldson a warm welcome—and thank you once again for the opportunity to speak with you today.

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