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HBCU Merger Proposals Persist Despite Fervent Opposition

As two campus communities in Louisiana wait to see what will come of a proposal to merge the University of New Orleans and the historically Black Southern University of New Orleans, higher education leaders around the country are looking on with interest. Proposals in Mississippi and other states — or even hints at such proposals — have been met with such vociferous opposition that proponents have backed off.

Not so with Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who has persisted to the point of appointing an African-American to the Board of Regents to blunt criticism that the board’s lack of diversity delegitimizes a board-approved proposal study.  The study, which is due next week, has been the target of a recent lawsuit by Southern University System students challenging the board’s racial composition. A Baton Rouge, La. judge has recently rescinded an injunction blocking the study, but the matter is expected to be appealed.

Although merger opposition remains strong in the Louisiana case, voices of support for some forms of mergers or other cost-cutting joint operations in other states are cautiously emerging within the Black higher education community.

Dr. Lezli Baskerville, president and CEO of the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education, contends that merger proposals involving an HBCU and predominantly White institution “usually mean the HBCU will be submerged, not merged, into the White institution.” However, she says she supports collaborative ventures, particularly in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines.

“Several HBCU/non-HBCU partnerships are having great success,” Baskerville wrote in a 2010 statement supporting a National Science Foundation proposal to broaden participation of undergraduate STEM programs.

“The dual degree partnership between Clark Atlanta University, Spelman College and Morehouse College with the Georgia Institute of Technology is just one of many examples of such partnerships,” she wrote. “The Virginia-Nebraska Alliance is another unique partnership between unlikely cohorts to address the national need to diversify the health care and research workforce.” The Alliance involves five HBCUs in Virginia, the University of Nebraska Medical Center and several other institutions.

Baskerville was part of the 2009 Louisiana Postsecondary Education Review Commission, convened by Jindal to examine ways of increasing excellence and cutting costs in the state’s higher education system. She says that group “expressly rejected” the option of merging SUNO and UNO for a number of reasons. Chief among those reasons was “the important role that SUNO is playing in meeting the education needs of mostly adult, first-generation students of fewer financial means.”

“I don’t think we should be against looking at some sort of realignments. We need to look at collaboration and synergy in terms of mission and complementary offerings,” Baskerville said in a recent interview with Diverse.

Dr. Lorenzo L. Esters, vice president of the Office for Access and the Advancement of Public Black Universities at the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, is far less receptive to the idea.

“While it is important to consider innovative options for decreasing state budgets as a result of the economic downturn, there is no reason this should be done at the expense or demise of HBCUs,” he says. “I am simply amazed that most merger discussions seem to single out HBCUs. There are 105 HBCUs in this nation. However, there are over 4,300 total institutions of higher learning in this country. Why is it that merger discussions are focused more on HBCUs than other types of institutions?”

In announcing the merger study, Jindal cited declining enrollment and low graduation rates — 5 percent at SUNO and 21 percent at UNO — as justifications for the potential merger. SUNO administrators, however, say enrollment is at its highest since Hurricane Katrina devastated the campus in 2005. The spring 2011 enrollment figure of 3,318 represents 91 percent of the school’s pre-Katrina enrollment.

“This signifies that students remain confident that we are a great fit for them as they pursue their respective undergraduate and graduate degrees,” says SUNO Chancellor Dr. Victor Ukpolo.

SUNO is one of five institutions in the Southern University System, the only historically Black university system in the nation. Its president, since last July, is Ronald Mason, who put forth an explosively controversial “unification proposal” before he resigned from Jackson State University.

He suggested in a draft document that was leaked to the media that historically Black Alcorn State, Jackson State and Mississippi Valley State universities be combined into one. “Some state officials are moving to reorganize state institutions in ways that they feel will benefit the state,” he wrote. “We should do the same for ourselves with our universities. For the sake of our children, it is time for us to consider joining forces.”

Now in Louisiana, Mason has said he supports a merger — but, unlike the governor’s proposal, Mason suggested moving the predominantly White UNO into the historically Black Southern system. Mason’s idea, which he presented last fall, briefly made local headlines but was not mentioned in Jindal’s statements.

In Georgia, State Sen. Emanuel Jones, chairman of the legislative Black Caucus, is credited with leading the charge against two separate proposed mergers: Savannah State University with nearby Armstrong Atlantic University, and Albany State University with the two-year Darton College [see Diverse, January 22, 2009]. The Georgia proposal was immediately assailed, primarily by Black legislators and alumni groups, even though the legislator who proposed the idea, former state Sen. Seth Harp, said he wanted to close the White institutions in the merger, not the Black ones.

“We quashed it,” Jones says. “People were very passionate about the history of injustice done to HBCUs in terms of funding.” Although budgetary concerns are at the core of merger proposals, Jones says the logical solution is for states to provide more, not fewer, resources for HBCUs in order to make them more competitive, thereby attracting more students of all races.

He says he does, however, see a need for forming and strengthening partnerships among state-supported institutions.

Some high-profile observers have risked the likely onslaught of criticism to come out in support of some form of change. Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Cynthia Tucker of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution was among the first, writing, “There is no good reason to maintain separate but equal public facilities in close proximity.”

Without actually supporting mergers, St. Petersburg Times columnist Bill Maxwell opined in a column during the Jackson State merger controversy that “HBCU leaders and supporters cannot continue to ignore” such proposals.

The repeated efforts by state officials may be nudging merger opponents to at least consider further discussion, whether it focuses on increasing synergy and collaboration as Baskerville recommends, merging HBCUs as Mason unsuccessfully suggested in Mississippi, or combining predominantly White institutions with HBCUs as Georgia and Louisiana leaders have put forth.

“These are tough financial times,” Baskerville says. “All higher education institutions, not just HBCUs, have to consider retooling and figuring out how we can come up with ways to increase excellence and decrease costs.” 

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