Krishanti Vignarajah Plans to Focus on HBCU’s While Running for Governor

Penelope Blackwell

Krishanti Vignarajah, former policy director to Michelle Obama, is a Democratic candidate running for governor of Maryland, and one of her primary areas of focus include the state’s historically black institutions.

In an early campaign visit to Morgan State University Monday evening, Vignarajah spoke to a group of students about her admiration for the university and for HBCUs overall, calling them “the upward engines of social mobility.”

“My mom was a Morgan State professor of Information Systems, and my running mate, Sharon Blake is a graduate of Morgan State,” Vignarajah said. “I have the deepest respect for Morgan State, but also the HBCUs more broadly.”

Vignarajah came with her parents to the U.S. when she was nine months old, as they fled civil war in their native Sri Lanka. Vignarajah said she grew up poor, in a basement apartment in Maryland, but her parents always stressed the importance of education in the household.

Upon graduation from Yale University, she was named the Senior Advisor at the State Department under Hilary Clinton, then under John Kerry, before eventually being named Ms. Obama’s policy director.

Her parents both spent time as professors at Morgan State and as teachers in the Baltimore school systems—particularly her father, whose academic career spanned over five decades. Vignarajah credits her parents not only with stressing education but also giving her a firsthand account of the state’s education system.

“I lived it day in and day out with my mother, but also my father, who used to teach at the [CASA Academy] bridge program,” said Vignarajah. “I saw what we were providing and failing to provide students through a number of different facets.”

Vignarajah’s policy outlines point to specific failures by the state of Maryland to support its HBCUs—Morgan, Bowie State University, Coppin State University and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore—due to underfunding and lack of programmatic support, as well as allowing white institutions like Towson University to duplicate programs and thus cutting into student populations. She’s also a staunch opponent of the policies of current governor Larry Hogan.

“I call him ‘Reverse Robin Hood,’ because he has literally robbed from the poor and given to the rich,” Vignarajah said. “We have a governor who has given public school funds to private schools, and the casino revenues are another example of money intended for our public schools.” She added, “At times we saw kids freezing in schools like Frederick Douglass where my dad and running mate taught.”

Among her goals as governor, Vignarajah proposed investing at least $500 million in HBCU programs, scholarships and infrastructure, as well as debt-free tuition for HBCU students and an extra $100 million in endowments for black colleges, who currently have a combined $80 million in endowment money.

“The reality is that we don’t win by just being anti-Trump or anti-Hogan; we’ve got to get voters out there and we do that by inspiring,” Vignarajah said. “The Obamas would say that if we put forth a new generation of leadership with a vision, we’ll be able to mobilise a lot of the folks who feel like they’ve been left behind.”