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Seth Harp found an unlikely ally in his quest to close two Georgia colleges, but he still faces an uphill fight.

When Georgia Republican Senator Seth Harp first floated his proposal to merge two of the state’s historically Black colleges with two majority Whites campuses, he won tacit approval from one of the most unlikely places possible: the African American editorial leader of the state’s flagship newspaper, Cynthia Tucker of The Atlanta Journal & Constitution.

In her column, Tucker says Harp has the right idea.

“…There is no good reason to maintain separate but equal public facilities in close proximity,” Tucker wrote. “…Many black educators continue to insist that historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) provide a nurturing environment that some Black students desperately need. However, de facto segregation isn’t required to give those students remedial studies, small class sizes and attentive teachers, all of which are also available at many diverse two-year colleges.

“More likely, Black college administrators and alumni are worried about losing a sense of history and identity bound up with institutions that have educated generations of Black students,” she continues. “Savannah State and Albany State each have fraternities and sororities, sports teams, bands and clubs that have played an active role in the lives of students and the surrounding communities.”

To be fair, Harp wants to close down the White campuses, and merge them into the historically Black campuses. But some Black college administrators and alumni – who are against Harp’s proposal – still worry the Black schools will lose a sense of history. But “…instead of fighting to preserve the status quo,” Tucker suggests supporters of the Black colleges “should work to create new institutions that provide a nurturing environment for all students.”

Harp also enjoys the support of citizens around the state as well as the country, as evidenced by letters he’s received since his idea started getting so much media attention.

The Georgia Board of Regents, ultimately responsible for distributing money to the state’s public colleges, had not placed Hart’s proposal on the agenda to discuss at the board’s upcoming meeting as of press time, but that won’t stop Harp from pushing his idea.

Harp says he will introduce a legislative resolution this month, urging the Regents to consider his proposal. “Consolidation saves money,” he says. “What we’ve got to do is spend our money wisely. The beast that we’re dancing with is that we don’t have the money, on a magnitude of $2 to $3 billion.”

History Repeating Itself?

This isn’t the first time the subject of merging the state’s historically Black public colleges has arisen. On each of the three previous occasions, the notion has been fiercely beaten back by Black and White citizens alike.

This time could be different.

If Georgia’s Board of Regents does seriously consider Harp’s plan, they can expect more of the same. In fact, outcry has already started.

No sooner had Harp uttered the words Black colleges and merger, when alumni of the state’s three Black universities sprang into action.

William Johnson, president of the Albany State University National Alumni Association, told Diverse ASU backers won’t take the issue laying down.

“It’s the same rhetoric and attempt that is tried every four or five years or so,” he says. “I think you still have that mentality of individuals who feel that predominantly black institutions are not productive.  It happens because of a few misguided minds. You can tell from the statements they make. They are just out of touch with today and the institutions they are talking about.

“But you’ve also got determination of alumni for both institutions to educate and make it known that this kind of attempt to dilute these institutions will not be accepted without some resistance or some fight,” Johnson adds. “A wait and see approach is not an appropriate approach. We’ve been discussing different ways to addressing the (Georgia) Senate, the Board of Regents as well as members of the Chancellor’s staff.”

Johnson says that each time this issue arises, it comes not from those in the know in the state’s higher education system. “It’s the individuals outside that circle who are out of touch with the reality of where these institutions are.”

In the late 1970s and through the 1980s a series of lawsuits were waged to desegregate some of the country’s historically Black campuses, mostly located in the South: A 1975 suit accusing Mississippi of maintaining separate higher education systems for blacks and whites sought more money and better programs for historically black universities. The U.S. Justice Department, long critical of Mississippi’s educational system, joined the case; it was settled in 2000; as part of a 1997 settlement agreement, Black colleges in Alabama were to be given $1 million for 10 years in order for scholarship grants, as part of an education scheme to recruit white students in order to help desegregation efforts, which resulted in another lawsuit attacking the whites-only scholarships; and other states such as Texas, Pennsylvania and Georgia were also faced with legal challenges and court orders to redress past wrongs.

The Thurgood Marshall College Fund, a national organization that represents the country’s public historically Black colleges and universities, sent a letter to Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue expressing their concerns about Harp’s proposition. Dwayne Ashley, the organization’s president and CEO, says Harp’s idea isn’t going anywhere, and his group plans to make sure of that.

Ashley says everybody is having to tighten their belts, and that historically Black institutions are no different. “But it doesn’t mean you have to go out of business,” he adds. “It means that you delay some of your capital expenditures, you cut back on your expenses and you operate lean, but you still can deliver quality educational services the same way the majority institutions are going to have to do throughout the states.

“The Thurgood Marshall College Fund is adamantly opposed to merging any of the historically Black colleges or universities,” Ashley said in a telephone interview. “And any attempt to merge historically Black colleges and universities, which play a vital role in states across the country, will be met with serious opposition from alumni and supporters of these institutions.”

Harp calls the counter-argument to his plan that a merger would decrease the number of students who can go to college and get degrees, “baloney,” and he says that Black leaders who oppose his idea are saying things he’s heard before.

“The Black community that is opposing this is making the exact same argument that the White Citizen’s Council folk made back in 1965,” he adds. “They are saying, ‘our children can’t go to those schools, we can’t succeed if our children go to those schools.’ I’ve heard it, I was there, I’ve lived it.”

Despite the fact similar merger proposals have failed before, Harp says he has reasons to be encouraged this time around.

“Two things: Money and Obama,” he says. “If people can’t see that things have changed, then they’ve got their heads stuck in the sand. I’m going to make sure we’re offering a quality education at all of our state institutions, pushing and shoving if I have to.”

Editor’s Note: This is the second of a two-part series. The first installment of Battle of Wills ran earlier this week. Subscribe to Diverse: Issues In Higher Education to read more about Seth Harp in the Jan. 22 issue.


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