Tennessee Desegregation Accord: “Forty Acres and a Mule”
Tennessee has supposedly “settled” its higher education desegregation case (Geier) amid much optimism that “it’s finally over” — the case has lingered in court since 1968. The accord was drafted to meet a Dec. 15, 2000, deadline. And much like the litigation over the presidential election going on at the same time, it achieved a similar result: We don’t know who the winner was, but we certainly know the loser: Tennessee State University, where I have taught since 1979.
My involvement in the Geier case began in 1976, when as a UT-Nashville professor I watched then-TSU president Dr. Fred Humphries say, “I hope that by the year 2000 we won’t be talking about a historically Black institution, we would be talking about an American institution.” This colorblind TSU was a reason the federal court ordered UT-Nashville merged into TSU. By 1984, it was clear that the merger was a failure as White students disappeared and didn’t come back. That year a “Stipulation of Settlement” was reached. It said TSU was supposed to attain 50 percent White undergraduate FTE by 1993. Humphries denounced the stipulation and left for Florida A&M University.
Now back to the Consent Decree, as it is called. It’s a shameful document, and I told the federal court so. First, in abolishing the 50 percent goal for TSU, it also dropped all goals for the White schools in Tennessee. Does anyone really think that without goals, that the White schools are really going to increase their efforts to attract African American students? Second, it’s backward-looking. It seeks to “revitalize” the UT-Nashville (downtown) campus by spending money on a two-year advertising campaign. It won’t work. It’s like trying to sell the world’s best baby food to bachelors.
The Consent Decree is morally wrong. It abolishes mandatory affirmative action in faculty hiring in Tennessee’s public universities. True, each White university will still have its own so-called “goals,” but there is no way to enforce them. The dreaded 1984 stipulation served that purpose.
The parties should have pointed out the obvious and sought proper remedies. The funding for TSU is based on “peer” schools, several of them Black. This means TSU has been and will remain underfunded, especially compared to predominately Middle Tennessee State University. The parties should have sought to give TSU exclusive jurisdiction to offer Internet courses statewide. That’s where students will be in 10 to 20 years, not sitting in the “revitalized” downtown campus. The parties should have also demanded that TSU be made an entirely tuition-free university for all in-state students. The chief obstacle to Black matriculation is money — free tuition would have doubled both Black and White enrollment. The parties should have insisted that TSU have control over one or both of the metro area community colleges. Instead, the Consent Decree says that TSU can never control them. That looks like apartheid to me …
The Consent Decree actually reinforces notions of educational apartheid in Tennessee. Degree programs are parsed out like tribal agreements over hunting rights. TSU gets to negotiate to purchase a law school and then get an unspecified doctoral program if the law school deal falls through. The Decree is a 21st century version of “Forty Acres and a Mule.” The lawyers get millions in legal fees; favored faculty will get released time to work on committees; and TSU will obtain neither students, funding, nor greater dignity in the Nashville community, which it so desperately wants.
— Lewis L. Laska is a professor of business law in the College of Business, Tennessee State University, Nashville.
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