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Alabama HBCUs To Get Financial Windfall From Desegregation Lawsuit Settlement

Alabama HBCUs To Get Financial Windfall From Desegregation Lawsuit Settlement
By Reginald Stuart

When Chemeria Smith, a senior at Greene County High School in Eutaw, Ala., seeks financial aid for college next fall, she may find some of it coming from an unlikely source — her own state of Alabama, which dedicates just 1 percent of its college funding to need-based aid.
Smith, who hopes to attend Alabama A&M University this fall, is preparing for college as state higher education officials decide how to disburse $10 million in new money from its need-based college assistance fund, which typically only has $1.7 million.

“I want to expand my learning experience and come back to help those in the community who helped me,” says Smith.

The financial windfall is part of the state’s surprisingly large surplus for fiscal year 2005. The unexpected surplus of more than $200 million helped end a 26-year-old federal lawsuit, Knight v. James, that
sought to end racial discrimination in the state’s billion-dollar public higher education system.

Black plaintiffs who had sued the state and all of the individual four-year, traditionally White public colleges, filed 10 separate settlement agreements this month with Judge Harold L. Murphy of the U.S. Court for the Northern District of Georgia. The plaintiffs agreed, separately and jointly, to end the litigation under terms that may dramatically change the state’s higher education landscape.

As the lawsuit worked its way through several court orders and implementation plans, it brought about significant changes for Alabama A&M University and Alabama State University, both historically Black schools. The physical plants at both schools underwent improvements, as did their academic offerings. Alabama A&M’s operations were also consolidated with those of traditionally White Auburn University, equalizing salaries and providing shared oversight to both schools. Traditionally White schools also were ordered to create diversity plans to attract more minority faculty to their campuses. The state also dramatically expanded need-based financial aid to Alabama students, regardless of race.

According to the Alabama Higher Education Commission, about 74,000 Alabama college students qualified for need-based aid in 2005, based on their Pell Grant applications. Only 1,400 actually got aid, and each award averaged only $383. The average tuition at a four-year, public college in Alabama for the current school year is $4,700.

 “It’s come a long way, and we’ve still got a lot to do,” says State Rep. John F. Knight Jr., D-Montgomery, the original plaintiff in the litigation. “We felt we had gotten all we could from the courts. It’s a legislative and politically driven settlement.”

The settlement sets forth the terms under which the state’s four-year public colleges and universities will work to eradicate all vestiges of racial segregation and discrimination by the year 2014. Carlos Gonzalez, the Atlanta-based lawyer who helped bring an end this fall to similar litigation in Tennessee, marshaled much of the settlement work.

From the start of the lawsuit through the expiration of the settlements in 2014, Alabama State and A&M will each have received more than $200 million in new state funds for capital programs, new academic offerings, endowment funds and diversity scholarships, says Knight, who also works for Alabama State. In January, that institution will get $25.8 million and A&M will get $7.3 million for capital needs. Another $100 million will have been spent at traditionally White colleges and universities on their strategic plans for enhancing diversity among faculty and staff.

The settlement does not address student enrollment as all parties agreed that traditionally White schools are aggressively seeking Black and other minority students. Diversification is a matter of survival for those institutions because between 2000 and 2005, there was a slight drop (0.3 percent) in the number of college-aged White Alabamans. Meanwhile, the number of Black and Hispanic college-aged residents rose 5 percent and 17 percent, respectively, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.

The settlement has a number of potential pitfalls, not the least of which is its dependence on the continued strength of the state’s economy. The unemployment rate in Alabama is just above 3 percent, and employers, such as auto manufacturers, are flocking to the state.

“Prior to the surplus, there was strong resistance to the settlement from historically White colleges,” says Robert Hunter, a deputy state attorney general. He says the schools did not want to lose revenue to Alabama State and A&M. “I don’t think we could have accomplished this without the state surplus. The future commitments will ride with the economy.”

James U. Blackshear, the veteran Alabama attorney who represented Knight, says he’s optimistic the goals of the settlement will stick, citing the increased presence and power of Blacks in both houses of the state Legislature.

“The basic approach is to continue doing more, but through the political arena,” he says. “We feel we can accomplish more there than through the courts. We also want to institutionalize these things, to make oversight part of the permanent political landscape. Institutional change is not accomplished in the snap of a finger.”

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