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Separate and Unequal

Separate and Unequal
Historically Black Central State says Ohio’s inadequate funding of the university violates 1998 agreement to close federal discrimination complaint
By Mark Fisher

Central State University and some Ohio legislators want the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights to reopen its 25-year-old investigation into the state’s treatment of Ohio’s only public HBCU. But the university’s initial request was rebuffed, and state officials in late June went ahead with cuts to CSU’s core funding over the next two years.

The state’s treatment of Central State has left the university’s president, Dr. John W. Garland, and members of the school’s governor-appointed board of trustees seething. Trustee Michael L. Nelson Sr. says state officials “seem to be deaf, dumb and blind to what we’re talking about,” and says it may be time for CSU supporters to “consider the merits of filing a formal federal lawsuit” to try to force the state to provide what trustees believe is adequate funding for the university.
Garland and trustees believe that the state budget signed into law June 30 by Gov. Bob Taft violates a 1998 agreement that closed — but did not completely settle — a federal discrimination complaint from 1981. That year, the OCR concluded that the state had violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 because Ohio was “maintaining Central State University as an institution for Blacks and has dissuaded White students from choosing to attend the institution.”

Similar cases in southern states resulted in groundbreaking settlements that boosted  the coffers of many public HBCUs, but Ohio officials never negotiated a full settlement with the Education Department. But in 1998, the civil rights office “closed” its active Title VI investigation based in part on assurances from then-Gov. George Voinovich (now a U.S. senator) and other state officials that Ohio would continue to rebuild and renew Central State.

In a December 2004 letter to the OCR, Garland contended the state “has failed to comply with important pledges it made” to the OCR, citing evidence he says proved the state “failed to enhance Central State University to make it as attractive as and comparable to other public universities in Ohio.”

The school’s facilities are not on par with other state schools, its programs and resources are lacking and its faculty salaries at all ranks are “substantially lower” than those at other state-supported universities, Garland says.

In March, CSU received a disappointing response from James F. Manning, who at the time was serving as the Education Department’s acting assistant secretary for civil rights. While promising to continue to monitor the state’s compliance with the agreement to close the Title VI case, Manning said the OCR “will not reopen its investigation.”
Central State officials were somewhat encouraged two months later when the OCR, in a May 12 letter to the Ohio Board of Regents, requested extensive data and reports on how CSU was being treated. But the request appeared to have no impact on state legislators who hammered out Ohio’s budget for the next two years: The budget reduces the state’s core funding for Central State by more than $800,000 in 2006, or 4.75 percent — the largest percentage cut among Ohio’s 13 public universities. The state also eliminated $125,000 in support for the school’s water resources program, and in the second year of the two-year budget, cuts an additional $463,000 from CSU’s funding. The university has a $35 million budget and an enrollment of 1,820 last fall.

The state’s board of regents say Central State receives far more money per student than other Ohio public universities and received an infusion of rebuilding money in the mid-1990s, when a financial and political crisis nearly closed the school.

“It’s hard to describe what the state’s side of the bargain is now compared to what it was six or seven years ago,” says Ohio Board of Regents associate vice chancellor Dr. Jane Fullerton. At that time, the state provided funds for CSU to pay off accumulated debts and to renovate residence halls that had been condemned.

But Paul Dutton, a CSU trustee for nine years and a former member of the Ohio Board of Regents who was appointed to CSU’s board by Voinovich, noted that the state “pledged to provide extraordinary support” to CSU to close the federal complaint. But while other large state-supported universities are building state-of-the-art student recreational centers, “We’re scratching and begging” for state funds for similar facilities.

“Where is our student center? We’re still arguing about whether we’re going to get it this biennium or in a biennium when we’re all dead,” Dutton says.

Garland’s frustration was evident in a June 17 memo to the board in which he wrote: “There have been few opportunities over the years to work collaboratively with the state of Ohio on enhancing and strengthening Central State University, as envisioned by the 1998 agreement with OCR. In fact, the [board of regents] and the state have expressed little interest, save for dictating cuts and pointing [to] our shortcomings, in engaging Central State trustees or the university itself in conversations about what it would take to move Central State to where we should be in relation to Ohio’s other public universities. We would welcome the chance to begin that conversation in earnest.”
Central State’s efforts have attracted support from at least two Ohio legislators. In a June 16 letter to the OCR, state Sen. Tom Roberts and state Rep. Fred Strahorn, both Democrats from nearby Dayton, wrote that the budget cuts to CSU “clearly indicate there is no good-faith effort on the part of this General Assembly to rectify its past indiscretions that have harmed the growth and stability of Central State University … [Reopening the] investigation will be imperative if the Legislature continues on its present course, which will cause significant fiscal harm to the university.” Ohio’s Legislature is firmly controlled by Republicans.

It’s unclear whether a leadership change at the OCR will have any impact on Central State’s efforts. In late June, President Bush nominated a veteran Republican aide in the U.S. Senate, 47-year-old Stephanie Johnson Monroe, to serve as the Education Department’s assistant secretary for civil rights (see Black Issues, July 14). While Manning and others have served as interim assistant secretaries, the top civil rights post has been vacant since 2003, when Gerald A. Reynolds stepped down.

Garland says he hopes CSU’s efforts have at least opened some eyes at the OCR, which he says, “now has perhaps a heightened concern about what’s happening” at Central State. For now, Garland says, he and other Central State officials will “move forward and provide a quality education to our students.”

— Mark Fisher covers higher education for the Dayton Daily News.

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