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Clark Atlanta Fight Over Engineering Program Headed to Court

ATLANTA

Clark Atlanta University Professor Lebone Mobeti settled in for what he figured would be a long term as chairman of the school’s engineering department when he took over the post in 2004.

Instead, a year later he found out school officials were disbanding the department.

The reason — school officials were facing a $7.5 million debt and figured the engineering department and the library sciences program should be ended to save money.

“The department was a revenue source for the school,” says Mobeti, noting that the engineering program brought in nearly $1.8 million in research dollars, grants and other revenue annually.

“So it was a decision made without a full accounting with the facts,” he says. “Why would you cut a revenue-producing program if you’re cutting costs?”

To keep the program going, Mobeti and a group of professors and students have sued CAU officials, claiming they failed to follow proper processes in their decision to eliminate the program.

CAU President Walter Broadnax “admitted it was personal preference that the school close the department,” says the group’s attorney, Gina Mangham. “Had they followed the procedures, the issue would have come out differently.”

Broadnax has called the lawsuit a “headache” and says the university acted appropriately in terminating the department.

“We have defeated them in every court and we keep defeating them,” he says.

Broadnax says he believes the group is trying to use the media to sway CAU’s board of trustees.

“The intensity of their yelling and screaming goes up as time runs out,” he says.

The Georgia Supreme Court will hear arguments in the case on March 13.

But the dispute also raises a larger issue — should historically Black colleges and universities, many of them struggling financially, continue to run expensive programs that are likely offered at other nearby institutions.

For example, CAU began its engineering department in 1994, despite participating in dual-degree programs with 11 other schools. Students would attend CAU for three years and then transfer to one of the other schools to finish their engineering requirements.

One of those schools is Georgia Tech, just a few miles away. Georgia Tech is one the nation’s top engineering schools, particularly when it comes to graduating Black students.

According to Temple University urban education and American Studies Professor Marc Lamont Hill, streamlining programs at many HBCUs will likely be their best bet for survival, especially because he says he doesn’t see government or alumni-based financial support increasing any time soon.

“What you might see surfacing is a return to the specialty schools,” he says. “If I wanted to study anthropology, I’d go to one school. If I wanted to study nursing, I’d go to another.

“It’s so difficult to sustain a comprehensive university when the funds are leaving and when the best and brightest Black students, by and large, aren’t coming anymore,” he continues.

Lesli Baskerville, the executive director of the National Association for Equal Opportunity In Higher Education, says she believes cutting programs doesn’t have to be considered if federal and state governments fund historically Black colleges and universities the same way they do flagship universities.

“Black colleges are so richly diverse and they are, at different points, relative to their missions and their finances,” she says. “We’ve got to provide the dollars to our institutions. That way we wouldn’t have to be in the position to make the tough choices.”

Baskerville says the issue will be one of the topics discussed at NAFEO’s town hall meeting during their upcoming national convention in Washington, D.C., March 14-17.

As for CAU, Mobeti says there isn’t any question that the school should be offering their own engineering program.

The school is one of only 14 HBCUs, most of them in the South, which offer their own engineering program.

Mangham and Mobeti have presented statistics showing that the school’s dual-degree program was producing fewer engineering graduates than CAU’s in-house program.

“We were adding to the number of African-American engineers,” Mobeti says. “And if you look at the Southeast, you would see per capita that Georgia produces fewer engineers. So there is a need for the program.”

But the courts have disagreed so far. Fulton County Superior Court dismissed the case, citing that CAU was a private institution and could make its own decisions.

The group appealed the case to the Georgia Court of Appeals, which sent it to the Georgia Supreme Court.

The engineering program is slated to be closed by May 2008, when the last students in the program are scheduled to graduate.

The engineering program is now a shell of what it used to be. Since the closing was announced, the number of professors has gone from 19 to seven. Research and grant money has also dropped dramatically, Mobeti says.

But saving the program isn’t about professors trying to save their jobs, he says.

“We’re not trying to tell the university how to run its affairs,” Mobeti says. “We just want them to follow the proper process. That way you can make informed decisions and everybody can be comfortable with that.”

–Add Seymour, Jr.

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