WASHINGTON — The U.S. Office of Civil Rights (OCR) announced recently that it will postpone further investigation into federal Civil Rights Act violations by the state of Ohio and instead allow them time to devise a plan that will satisfy the U.S. Department of Education and address the financial crisis at Central State University.
The “verbal agreement” is the newest wrinkle in a decades-old on-and-off relationship between the Ohio State Board of Regents and OCR. In the early 1980s, the state of Ohio was found in violation of Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act for unlawful segregation and unequal treatment of African-American students seeking higher education in the state.
Following a more than 10-year lull in efforts to investigate the violations, the case was revived in 1994 when the U.S. Department of Justice referred the case back to the OCR for re-investigation, said Raymond C. Pierce, deputy assistant secretary of the Office of Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Education.
Ohio’s case in some ways fell through the cracks as OCR turned its attention to a series of desegregation cases in the late 1970s and early 1980s against more than 15 states. including Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana, Pierce said. “We wanted to ensure that the 1981 findings were still substantively the same.”
OCR’s 1981 investigation concluded that the state of Ohio maintained a dual higher education system that discriminated against Central State, its only historically Black state-supported university, and underfunded the institution.
The result of that underfunding, Pierce said, has been “a history of chronic financial instability with the further effect of preventing CSU from providing equal educational opportunities and services to its students” compared to other state-supported colleges and universities.
“In determining whether or not there are any civil rights violations with respect to Ohio’s treatment of Central State University, it is important to view the per student funding formula in its entire context,” Pierce added.
“We are working on two levels right now–compliance review and with the [interim] president of Central State and his staff on resolving the university’s financial crisis.” said Dr. William Napier, vice chancellor of the Ohio State Board of Regents. “Instead of facing each other as adversaries, we will be working together as partners,” Napier added.
No timetable has been set for Ohio to devise a new plan for compliance.
As the state contends with its violations, Central State is struggling to erase a staggering $6 million deficit, bolster enrollment and keep its doors open.
The board of regents approved a plan earlier this month by Central State University trustees to trim the deficit through administrative and faculty downsizing, salary reductions and elimination of some academic programs (see Black Issues, Feb. 8, 1996). According to Robert Carter, president of the Central State University Board of Trustees. the cuts are expected to save the institution $2.1 million.
Neither Pierce nor Napier would speculate on whether the reopening of the case or the compliance agreement will affect the university’s financial recovery.
Pierce maintains that striking a partnership with the board of regents was a necessity, but he expressed concern that the layoffs and program cuts at Central State could perpetuate the situation described in OCR’s 1981 findings. “I’m trying to keep an open mind.” Pierce said.
“[Ohio Board of Regents] have said that they want to work with us in making Central State viable again.”
A year ago, regents arranged for a $4 million aid package to help Central State pay its vendors, Napier said. In December the board agreed to give the university a $1.2 million advance on a state subsidy to cover its payroll.
Since agreeing to work with the state, Pierce said he has attended meetings of a newly-formed financial review committee organized by the board of regents.
The focus now should be on recruiting Central State’s 1996 freshmen class, Napier said, but the reasons for the institution’s “financial crisis” still need to be addressed. Napier said the university drifted into the red because it lost control over its spending and failed to retain and graduate its upperclassmen. “[Central State] had a problem moving students through to completion.”
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