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New ‘Fordice’ report may benefit Mississippi HBCUs – Ayers v. Fordice, historically Black colleges and universities

Jackson, Miss.

The new report is 400 pages and 100,000 words —
one of the bulkiest in memory — and is touted as a reaffirmation of
the importance of the nation’s historically Black colleges and
universities (HBCUs).

Further Desegregation of Higher Education in the Mississippi Delta
proposes a plan that would move Mississippi further from its racially
separatist past and into a more diverse, racially inclusive future. It
was produced as a result of one of the longest-running college
desegregation cases in the nation — Ayers v. Fordice — by the Board
of Trustees of State Institutions of Higher Learning.

James Lyons, the president of Jackson State University, one of
Mississippi’s eight HBCUs, called the study, which was released last
month, a “good foundation on which to build…. What we’ve done here
today is to reaffirm the importance of the nation’s historically
African American universities.”

Ayers v. Fordice is a twenty-three-year-old case in which the late
Jake Ayers Sr. filed a lawsuit — on behalf of his son and almost two
dozen other Black Mississippi students — that sought to end the
state’s racially motivated dual system of education. In 1992, six years
after the elder Ayers’s death, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed that
Mississippi’s dual system of education was unfair and something had to
be done about it.

One of the report’s proposals calls for putting more money into the
state’s HBCUs in an attempt to make them more attractive to students of
all colors. In particular, the study recommends the establishment of a
college of engineering at Jackson State, which will also offer doctoral
programs in business, social work, and urban and regional development.

“Jackson [State] is one of the few capital cities or metropolitan
regions of its size that fails to offer an engineering program to
citizens of the region,” the report states. “An engineering program is
critical to [the] enhancement of Jackson [State]’s ability to attract
and retain business and industry.”

Thomas Layzell, Mississippi’s commissioner of higher education,
said he likes the idea of a college of engineering, but noted that it
could cost as much as $9 million over a six- to ten-year period to get
the college going. That money would have to first be approved by the
state’s legislature, a historically tight-fisted group that responds
suspiciously to public spending.

“We anticipate the legislature will be responsive to us,” Layzell said hopefully.

But Charles Young, the chairman of the Mississippi House of
Representative’s Committee on Universities and Colleges, thinks that
the $9 million price tag may be a hard sell.

“There are members [of the legislature] who are going to be more
concerned about spending that kind of money than anything else,” he
predicts. “I, for one, am more concerned about making all of our
schools competitive [and] to do what is in line with the Ayers
decision. But you have to address the financial concerns, too.”

The study also recommends enhancing a wide array of programs at two
other HBCUs — Delta State and Mississippi Valley State universities. A
statewide system of satellite schools would be created for both
institutions, and their annual building maintenance budgets would be
consolidated with the rest of Mississippi’s higher education system.

Layzell was quick to note that pulling together the maintenance
expenses should not be considered a move to gain control over the
state’s higher education institutions.

“The board concluded early on that it did not make good sense for
the board to have total control of funding,” he explained. “It’s not

Reaction to the study in the state’s higher education community appears to be positive.

That lack of criticism thus far, however, may have to do with the
size of the report. The study is composed of three separate reports,
and it takes time to wade through the countless charts, graphs, and
inevitably dense committee-style writing.

“The board has worked very diligently to make sure these reports
not only dealt with the issues of the case, but reflected the board’s
goals and priorities,” said Rick Garrett, a member of the Mississippi
College Board. “We feel they are reflective of what should be happening
in higher education today.”

However, there are those who see problems ahead.

“We have some high-quality Black colleges and universities down
there,” said Thomas Colbert, a banker from Brandon, Mississippi who is
serving a ten-year term on the College Board. “But the competition for
students has become ferocious … so now a lot of people are concerned
that there is going to be an actual demise of the Black schools.

“I see a huge problem,” he continued. “Do you want to get a degree
from a 150-year-old institution, or one that is twenty or thirty years
old? Do you want a degree from Ole Miss or some small state school?
That is the challenge we are facing now, and I don’t know what to do
about it.”

At press time, Republican Governor Kirk Fordice had not yet issued
a public statement on the proposals. And although Mississippi’s
legislature will not take up the issue of whether or not to approve
funding for Jackson State’s new college of engineering until the next
regular session begins early next year, the board remains optimistic
that most of the report’s findings will eventually be implemented.

COPYRIGHT 1998 Cox, Matthews & Associates

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