Will Historic Inequities Ever Be Remedied?
Before leaving office, Democrats and the Office of Civil Rights settled all but one desegregation case.
Will Black colleges flounder in the postelection dust?
By LYDIA LUM
Picture this: A public school that was king of Black college football for many years, and also sports a marching band historically renowned. It draws nearly half of its 6,700 students from out of state and
enjoys an enviable nursing and teacher certification passage rate.
Suddenly, accreditation officials refuse to give its blessing to Grambling State University in Louisiana, normally a rubber stamp-like process each decade for any university. Instead, accreditation officials ship out press releases about
financial problems at the school amid the
December holidays. Then days later, the college president quits.
Is it an isolated problem? Or, is it a symptom of a spreading illness? Is there a plague that could sweep states where dual, unequal systems of education once were revered? Granted, much progress has occurred. Before leaving office, Democrats settled all but one desegregation case between the federal Office of Civil Rights and various Southern and border states.
But now Republicans have assumed control of the White House. They control a slender margin in Congress. Could historically Black colleges flounder in the postelection dust? Are they going to continue being the unwanted stepchildren to predominantly White colleges? What are the Black schools actually getting from their states under the terms of these settlements?
The consequences are crucial. Nearly 80 percent of students attending historically Black colleges go to public institutions. However, several education observers say it’s perhaps too early to guess, depending on who is tapped to fill key jobs such as the assistant attorney general for civil rights. But some say the Beltway influence still has its limitations.
“On a day-to-day basis, these schools are not run from Washington,” says Ted Shaw, associate director/counsel for the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund. “And the truth is, both Democrats and Republicans have expressed a lot of rhetorical support for Black colleges. What I really wonder is, what standards this federal government is going to require these states to meet from now on?”
Indeed, those “standards” are the next chapter in a saga stretching several decades. Nineteen states were asked by the federal government in the 1970s and 1980s to craft plans erasing discrimination against their historically Black colleges and Black citizens. The chief components of the plans were to substantially integrate the student body, faculty and staffs of all campuses while strengthening the infrastructure and academic programs at the Black colleges.
This was part of federal officials’ enforcement of Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which bans discrimination in federally subsidized schools. So in those states, the federal Office of Civil Rights within the U.S. Department of Education monitored the progress in meeting these objectives. The Legal Defense Fund originally represented the plaintiffs, but later lost its standing to participate in the case, thus leaving a vacancy in the vital third party watchdog role for this type of litigation.
But by 1993, four of those 19 states — Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama and Tennessee — were in court over exactly what was to be done to carry out this mandate. And OCR officials determined that seven other states either were not complying with state desegregation plans or not complying with federal standards. Those states were Ohio, Maryland, Florida, Texas, Kentucky, Virginia and Pennsylvania.
By the end of 2000, only Virginia still had unresolved issues with the OCR. Court orders dictated how Alabama and Tennessee should desegregate. Mississippi was still in court but is currently seeking an acceptable settlement with U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., and Attorney Alvin Chambliss Jr., who has represented the plaintiffs in the case from its earliest days. Louisiana and the other six states had signed consent decrees with the OCR. Each of those agreements called for the OCR to monitor various plans that are supposed to level the proverbial playing field between predominantly White colleges and their historically Black counterparts.
“That is the hope,” says Raymond Pierce, who until late last year was deputy assistant secretary for the OCR for eight years. “I wouldn’t have signed off on these plans if there wasn’t a good chance of compliance.”
In one of the higher-profile cases, the Ayers lawsuit in Mississippi, an offer has been made by the state that would, among other things, call for major capital improvements at Alcorn State, Jackson State and Mississippi Valley State universities. Other aspects include establishing new public and private endowments, strengthening academic programs and providing financial assistance for the summer developmental education programs. A spokesman for Rep. Thompson said a decision has not been made and “the offer remains on the table.”
It is not known how many dollars the states had collectively committed to public Black colleges under the settlements. And like a nasty divorce, some terms remain to be hashed out, such as exact numbers of new courses and additional professors. Others will simply play out, such as whether recruiting more White students to the new rigorous academic programs at Black colleges actually will convince them to enroll. Nonetheless, the agreements are “hard and fast,” Pierce says, despite the outcome of President George W. Bush’s proposed budget cuts.
“The states are obligated to comply,” Pierce says. “If the states have problems, they will need to go to the Education Department to get help complying.”
Last month elected officials and education observers were reeling from a reorganization of education subcommittees in the U.S. House of Representatives that was close to derailing bipartisan cooperation. Under the reorganization, HBCU issues would be separate from most other higher education services. A new subcommittee on 21st Century Competitiveness was to oversee nearly all Higher Education Act programs, except for financial aid to historically Black colleges and Hispanic-serving institutions. The latter would be lumped with juvenile justice, child abuse and runaway youth programs in a Select Education subcommittee. Capitol Hill supporters said the new plan gave higher visibility to the minority schools, but opponents said it segregated them from higher education priorities.
However, on March 15, Democrats and Republicans ended their dispute over the jurisdiction of minority-serving institutions and agreed to move legislative jurisdiction over the minority school programs into the Competitiveness subcommittee, and keep general oversight of the programs in the Select Education subcommittee (see story, page 8).
Pierce said that before leaving Washington for his native Cleveland, where he is campaigning for mayor, he briefed Black lawmakers in various states about terms of the consent decrees.
“They can be the watchdogs,” says Pierce, who also negotiated many of the consent decrees. “They can identify the bills that might be adverse to the consent decrees. After all, the states may see the opportunity to push back on fulfilling their federal civil rights obligations.”
How effective that will be, remains to be seen. But in Texas, where state lawmakers are now convening, prospects of redistricting have consumed much of the hallway gossip. Even among higher education priorities, state budget writers there are focused on repeated requests by the University of Houston for money to hire more star faculty so they can better compete with flagships like the University of Texas and Texas A&M universities. UH has arguably the most ethnically diverse student enrollment in the region and still educates many first-generation college students. UT and Texas A&M are still predominantly White. Meanwhile, lobbyists for the historically Black Prairie View and Texas Southern universities jockey for attention amid the myriad other issues competing for lawmakers’ attention before they recess in about two months until 2003.
Under Bush’s six years as governor, Texas’ spending per student at Prairie View and TSU increased. But whether that is tied to the OCR-brokered consent decree signed with Texas last year is anyone’s guess. No one knows how long Pierce and others had been in serious negotiation with Texas officials, or whether the rapidly approaching end to former President Clinton’s administration sped up negotiations with Texas and other states.
The road ahead
Politicking aside, life does move on at public Black colleges — even if there are bumps in the road. At Grambling State University, leaders are trying to convince officials of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools by June that Grambling is financially stable and has adequate internal accounting procedures. In late December, SACS officials decided not to reaccredit Grambling because of concern over fiscal policies raised by Louisiana’s legislative auditor. SACS officials will reconsider Grambling’s status later this year.
For students, college accreditation is important because it means their academic degrees come from schools meeting peer-reviewed standards. Non-accredited institutions run the risk of losing their ability to participate in federal financial aid programs.
Grambling president Steve Favors resigned in early January (see Black Issues, Jan. 18). In a letter, Favors took credit for increasing the number of accredited academic programs, aggressive fund-raising and securing Clinton as a commencement speaker. But University of Louisiana System officials said Favors “was unable to follow” their orders to hire a chief financial officer and get Grambling’s financial records in order, according to a press release. Dr. Neari Warner, a Grambling alumna and most recently its provost, is now the acting president.
Grambling officials insist the school remains on firm footing. They contend some data was lost in recent years when they converted from one computerized system to another, and there was no equivalent in the new system for some programs in the old system, says Dr. Curtis Baham, associate vice president for academic affairs. So administrators are now retrieving “anywhere up to a million pieces of paper” between now and the semester’s end, Baham says.
“There is no doubt Grambling is financially stable,” Baham says. “An audit is about more than money. It can be a chair in one building that’s supposed to be in another building, and you get written up for it. What is important is that Grambling is able to pay its bills. It operates normally. We are not an institution failing financially. We are optimistic we can provide proof to SACS of financial stability.”
Dr. M. Christopher Brown, who has published research about college desegregation in Southern and border states, believes Grambling’s current troubles have more to do with larger problems facing all public Black colleges, before even considering OCR issues. This country simply has not produced a strong field of candidates to preside over HBCUs, far from glamorous positions, Brown says. HBCUs often enroll students relying on federal loans, while National Merit Scholars and children of wealthy alumni typically opt for predominantly White schools.
Consequently, public Black college leadership turnover is high. Some presidents in fact “are positioning the institutions for their demise,” says Brown, a professor of higher education at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Meanwhile, Alabama State University still lacks a president, following William Harris’ departure last year. And President Frederick Humphries of Florida A&M University recently announced his resignation after 16 years.
But of course, the news from public Black colleges isn’t all bad. The business school at South Carolina State University was recently accredited by the American Assembly of Colleges and Schools of Business. North Carolina A&T still pumps out the nation’s highest numbers of Black engineers, giving its graduates one of the least expensive options to earning diplomas. At the same time, contributions from individuals and corporations continue trickling in to the Thurgood Marshall Scholarship Fund, a national fund-raising federation for public Black colleges, despite lingering misperceptions that giving to the United Negro College Fund is giving to all Black colleges, instead of just the private ones.
Bush, while still serving as Texas governor, has said that strengthening public Black colleges is important to give students “access to a quality, affordable education.” Last May, while giving the commencement address at Prairie View A&M, he told the audience he would seek more resources for the school just northwest of Houston. In remarks made at the recent UNCF annual dinner, Education Secretary Dr. Roderick Paige affirmed his commitment to Black colleges. Paige is a product of Jackson State University, the largest of Mississippi’s three Black public universities. The UNCF is the highly successful fund-raising arm of 42 Black private colleges and universities.
Brown, meanwhile, is cautiously optimistic about Bush’s ascension to the White House mainly because of his selection of Paige as Education secretary. With an African American leading what is arguably the most important of the domestic cabinets, Brown believes Paige’s leadership is crucial to ensuring that the states improve long-term funding of historically Black colleges. Paige was most recently superintendent of Houston public schools and is a former education dean of Texas Southern University.
“I’m very positive about Paige,” Brown says, adding that he has never met him but has consulted others who do know him. “He is not a figurehead but has spent time in the trenches. He is not a politician but a K-16 administrator, based on his working for so long in K-12. And his experience in Black education is in public schools, not a private one like Fisk (University).”
What would be “highly disappointing,” is if Paige didn’t take advantage of his Cabinet position to help the states improve historically Black colleges, says Brown. “The Rod Paige selection speaks volumes,” he says. “It adds so much credibility to the possibilities for this office. It keeps hope alive, even just in the symbolism.”
Others echo Brown’s wish that Paige assert himself on OCR issues.
“I would like to see him become more of a world figure, almost like a trade secretary,” says Dr. Joyce Payne, director of the Office for the Advancement of Public Black Colleges. “I would like to see him sitting down with his counterparts in other countries to talk about education. I’m not sure right now we have that kind of secretary (in Paige) but I hope he emerges. He can make a compelling argument for the Black colleges. We cannot continue to relegate Blacks to the underclass without hurting human capital.”
Payne’s office serves the American Association of States Colleges and Universities as well as the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges. She says she hopes Black churches take up the call to demand improvements for Black higher education, much as the church once got involved with the civil rights movement in decades past.
Certainly, some things are obvious. Even with a hard-liner such as John Ashcroft as attorney general, Bush has a chance to prove that he actually is not weak on civil rights, Pierce and others say.
“Bush has said he realizes and appreciates the role of the historically Black college,” Pierce says. “Now he has the opportunity to put substance behind those words.”
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com