During a recent panel at the White House, first lady Michelle Obama said, “Education is the single most important civil rights issue that we face today.”
Nowhere is this statement more evident than with the persistently unequal funding of the nation’s public historically Black colleges and universities.
Recent lawsuits in South Carolina and Maryland on behalf of the states’ public HBCUs contend that South Carolina State University in South Carolina and Morgan State University, the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, Coppin State University and Bowie State University in Maryland have historically received less funding and inequitable program offering compared to the states’ predominantly White institutions.
But the cases in Maryland and South Carolina are neither new nor unique. Before South Carolina or Maryland, there was a similar lawsuit in Mississippi that resulted in a $500 million settlement for the state’s HBCUs.
In 1970, the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Education Fund supported Adams v. Richardson, a lawsuit brought against the Department of Health, Education and Welfare charging that 10 states — Maryland, Florida, Louisiana, North Carolina, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and Virginia — were failing to eliminate the vestiges of segregated school systems. The suit was brought on behalf of 31 students against Elliott L. Richardson, individually and as then-secretary of the department.
In the end, those states were ordered to immediately remedy the dual systems of segregation, with the explicit notation that Black colleges not be harmed by the desegregation mandate in these states.
Court documents from the 1973 appeal of the case acknowledge the need for “a viable, coordinated state-wide higher education policy that takes into account the special problems of minority students and of Black colleges. … Black institutions currently fulfill a crucial need and will continue to play an important role in Black higher education.”
In other words, integration efforts in those 10 states found to be in violation of the law could not happen at the expense of Black colleges. However, not only have the states not met the obligation to provide equal funding and programming since then, but the federal government has not enforced it.
Since the beginning of the Black presence in America, there has been what Dr. Edwin T. Johnson, an adjunct assistant professor of history at the University of Maryland University College and a member of Morgan State’s staff, calls a “systematic disenfranchisement of minorities” in education.
“At its initial inception, American higher education at its very core was exclusionary,” Johnson says.
First, there was the outright ban on access to education during slavery. Reconstruction came after, and then, finally, at the construction of Black institutions there was unequal funding and second-rate resources — issues historically Black institutions are still fighting to dismantle.
One senior Department of Education official says, “There were no reparations to Black folks after slavery; [the federal appropriation to] Howard University is the form of reparation, when, in fact, all of the HBCUs should have a permanent place in a federal [budget] line.”
As Johnson notes, “Most folks call higher education the great equalizer.” But “one of the things a lot of people don’t want to acknowledge about HBCUs [is that] most institutions usually had some support from some religious institution or some White philanthropist.”
The main problem with that, he says, is that “there was always some identity being projected from without [and] still some underlying racism and a lot of it was a result, in my opinion, of White privilege.”
With the recent abolition of slavery, Johnson says White Americans were faced with the question of, “How does this transition still allow them to be free but still be the primary labor force?”
As a solution, Black higher education was primarily established to teach the newly freed African-Americans in this country with the skills they could use to earn jobs: “teaching, preaching and agricultural and mechanical labors,” Johnson says.
A September 2013 report published by the Association of Public Land-grant Universities (APLU) found that, from 2010 to 2012, states were failing to meet the required 100 percent match of federal funding to 1890 land-grant institutions (all public HBCUs). In the same period, the 18 HBCUs covered under this provision did not receive almost $57 million in extension or research fees, as a result of the failure of the states to provide the required funds.
“States have not lived up to their end of the bargaining in providing matching funding [for land-grant HBCUs],” the official says.
“I don’t think that legislators in those states see that HBCUs add important and critical pieces to the higher education landscape,” says Dr. John M. Lee Jr., the former vice president of the Office of Access and Success at the APLU and current assistant vice president for alumni affairs and university relations at Florida A&M University.
Lee says that, not only do schools that do not receive the state match have to operate deficient of those amounts, if they cannot match the federal funds from general operating budgets, the institutions must return the federal funding, penalizing the HBCUs twice.
Even for schools such as the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, which is able to make up the difference from general operating budgets, having to do so “puts a strain on an already low-resource institution,” Lee says.
“In every case, [state contributions are] matched for PWIs, but, in most cases, it is not matched for HBCUs in the same states,” Lee says, adding that the PWI match is often 12-to-1 or 8-to-1. “That is a civil rights issue for me.”
For example, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal recently proposed a budget that cuts $400 million from the state’s higher education budget, with the weight to be divided evenly among all of the system’s schools to compensate for shortfalls. But when schools such as Southern University and Grambling State University are already lower-resource institutions, the impact of this hit is not equal.
“Why would you penalize further schools that are limited resource institutions? They should be exempted [from such cuts],” says the Department of Education (ED) official. Lee agrees. “You’re creating a disaster at institutions that are already underfunded. That’s something that really should be examined in a little more detail, because that’s something that can be catastrophic for Southern and Grambling,” he says.
National priority lacking
The burden does not fall solely on the states’ responsibility to HBCUs. “We need a national priority” that brings HBCUs to the forefront, the official says. “When you do a comparison, one weapon system — a B-2 bomber — is billions of dollars. That’s just one weapon system. Can we do without an A-10 replacement and put that into higher ed?”
So far, HBCUs have not been a priority. Preliminary ED reports for 2013 show that federal research money is down to HBCUs.
Although funding is down across the board, according to the ED official, “any one of [the major research institutions] received more than all of the Black colleges combined. And that’s including Howard University. That’s a disconnect.”
Former Deputy Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights at ED Raymond Pierce says it is key to remember that not only is there not a permanent federal appropriations line for HBCUs, but there is neither law nor a judicial ruling that extends specific protections to the institutions.
“The law, whether it’s Title VI, which has its basis in the 14th Amendment of the United States [or any other policy on the books], does not protect historically Black colleges and universities; it protects African-American students attending those universities,” he says.
Pierce, who was instrumental in many of the cases in the late ’80s and early ’90s that allocated more funding to HBCUs across the country and who consulted in the early stages of the Maryland case, says that “it’s just a tougher fight now” to make the case for additional monies allocated to HBCUs.
Citing the case at South Carolina State, Pierce, who is currently a partner at Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough LLP, says it is increasingly difficult for particular HBCUs with documented leadership struggles and low alumni giving to make the case for increased funding from state general assemblies.
“South Carolina, where we have a state committee voting to defund an institution on basically the [low graduation, retention and alumni giving] numbers, and you want to make the constitutional argument that you can’t do that, that that’s [discriminatory], then you’d better be talking about the opportunities for African-Americans, not the brick and mortar of South Carolina State.”
Fortunately, says Pierce, the protection of equal opportunity for Black students “follows the students wherever he or she goes. So if you have large numbers of African-American students still enrolling” at HBCUs, then those protections are transferrable, he says. Lee says the solution is simple: force states to match the funding for HBCUs by holding them accountable.
“If a state does not match all of the funds that they receive from the Department of Agriculture [for land-grant institutions], then you take all of the money back,” suggests Lee. “If the money comes in, then you have [to] fund everybody.”
But Lee says there has been no federal-level outrage over or motivation to remedy the discrepancies in funding. “There just has not been a willingness on the part of the federal government to really change or really force states into that,” he says, adding those in Washington, D.C., lack “the will to really make that happen” and provide parity for HBCUs.
Pierce doesn’t believe that there will be a legislative response to the issue and says that it will take a ruling from the federal courts that offers specific protection to HBCUs to force state legislatures to respond.
Lee’s statements echo the sentiments of many who have been around the department and the HBCU community for years, a growing frustration with the federal government and President Obama in particular.
The president’s recent remarks to the Congressional Black Caucus that some HBCUs may need to “go by the wayside,” according to one representative, infuriated some members of the community. “ … He didn’t show much empathy for struggling HBCUs,” Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., said in a statement soon after the meeting.
“It was like, ‘Show me the numbers and if the numbers aren’t where they need to be, that’s it.’ It was a somewhat callous view of the unique niche HBCUs fill.”
Indeed, no other president has ever suggested HBCUs should close. According to the ED official, the president’s remarks gave credence to dissenters who may be arguing HBCU relevance in the 21st century: “If he said it, do they really need those schools?”
Pointing out that Obama is a former constitutional law professor at the University of Chicago, Pierce says, “I don’t think [Obama] would have said that if he hadn’t done the analysis” to realize that it was “a sound legal argument. Not a good political one, but constitutional.”
But Pierce says the disconnect between the nation’s first Black president and the plight of its Black colleges is reflective of the fact that many Blacks in power have long been stronger advocates of complete integration than strengthening HBCUs, including many highly visible NAACP activists. In fact, the strongest pushes to strengthening HBCUs have traditionally been racist responses to calls for integration.
For example, he says, “In North Carolina, every time an African-American would file a lawsuit to be admitted into the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the state’s response was to improve the programs at North Carolina Central.”
Much of the time, that is representative of attitudes around the country.
“We’re at a time and a place where HBCUs are not just in trouble from an internal perspective of leadership, but it’s really an external environment that’s really seeking to close those institutions across the board,” says Lee.
The key today to making a sound constitutional argument for increased programming and funding at HBCUs is to make sure the institutions making the claims have sustained quality leadership, administration, operations and alumni support, says Pierce.
“If you have a situation where state money cannot be accounted for, … graduation rates are below acceptable numbers, retention rates are below acceptable numbers, where alumni support is embarrassingly low, where you’re soundly branded as being deficient in customer service … it is nearly impossible in 2015 to expand the argument for increasing public funding on Title VI lines,” he says.
Instead, schools should replicate the model of Morgan State President Emeritus Earl Richardson, Pierce says. With strong leadership, Morgan State was able to make the argument in Maryland that the state has done its HBCUs a disservice.
But “Richardson did not wait until some state committee voted to shut down their school. They were visionaries; they took action,” adds Pierce.
States and the federal government have not realized that across-the-board cuts are detrimental to the continued viability of HBCUs, and, regardless of what the president says, HBCUs cannot be just allowed to “go by the wayside,” experts say.
“You can’t cut but so far without affecting your accreditation standards and status,” Lee says. “There’s a very slippery slope to those that think you can just manage and cut your way out; there has to be at least a baseline level of commitment … to ensure that all institutions, but particularly HBCUs, have the funding they need.”
All parties agree that, to effect change, participation in the political processes — state and federal — will be imperative, and this includes having an active alumni base to advocate on the schools’ behalf.
As Pierce points out, however, that advocacy must be before there is a crisis and it must include a demonstrable concern backed up by alumni dollars.