Feds Close Title VI Investigation in Ohio

DAYTON, Ohio

The decision by the U.S. Department of Education’s
Office for Civil Rights (OCR) to close its active Title VI
investigation into the state of Ohio’s treatment of Central State
University (CSU) triggered mixed reactions ranging from praise to sharp
criticism in and around the Wilberforce, Ohio campus.

OCR Assistant Secretary Norma V. Cantu notified Ohio Gov. George
Voinovich in a February 17 letter that her office had “closed” its
investigation into the discrimination case that has spanned two
decades. The department had reopened its investigation in March 1997,
at the height of legislative threats to merge or shut down the school.

OCR deputy assistant secretary Raymond C. Pierce emphasized the
action does not mean the complaint is resolved. OCR will continue to
monitor the state of Ohio’s efforts to rebuild Central State and
incorporate it as a full partner among Ohio’s public higher-education
institutions, he said.

“There is no determination that the violation has been corrected,” Pierce said.

But that statement was met with skepticism among some CSU officials and supporters.

The OCR found in 1981 that Ohio had violated federal civil-rights
laws in its funding and treatment of CSU. It concluded that the state’s
decision to build and enhance Wright State University — just eleven
miles away — amounted to discrimination against CSU’s students and
faculty. The complaint was never resolved, and Ohio became the only
state among those cited by the OCR during the period to have never
submitted a plan to resolve the complaint.

The department’s decision to close the investigation appears to
remove the threat of an imminent federal lawsuit against the state or
efforts to withhold federal money from Ohio colleges.

Cantu told Voinovich the state’s efforts so far — including
legislation that funds CSU’s operations for the next two years and a
“CSU 2000” strategic plan embraced by CSU’s board of trustees —
demonstrate the state’s commitment to the school.

“The legislation and plan call for future efforts to strengthen
Central State, which are key to our decision to close our
investigation,” Cantu wrote.

Voinovich spokesman Mike Dawson said the governor was pleased with
the decision, which he said resulted from “a lot of negotiations back
and forth.” Dawson said the goal now is to continue the university’s
progress.

Voinovich, a Republican, has indicated he will run for the U.S.
Senate seat now held by John Glenn, a Democrat who announced he will
not seek re-election this November.

CSU Board of Trustees Chairman Frederick Ransier III said he
believed the OCR’s decision was “premature” but interpreted the action
as “a strong endorsement” of the school’s rebuilding efforts to date.

Snyder Garland, president of the NAACP chapter in Greene County,
Ohio, where CSU is located, said he does not accept the OCR’s decision.

“Any fool could look at this and see the disparity of treatment”
between CSU and other state-supported universities, he said. “[CSU] has
not been made whole…. This is totally inappropriate.”

Robert Marcus, president of CSU’s American Association of
University Professors (AAUP) faculty union, said the, civil rights
office’s decision suggests that federal officials approve of the
faculty layoffs and program cuts that have taken place at the
university. Last August, nineteen faculty members were terminated for
budgetary reasons, and some academic departments were merged. That
followed earlier staff cuts.

“If the federal government is saying it is pleased with the downsizing, I’m concerned about that,” Marcus said.

Only fourteen months ago, the civil rights office was telling state
officials in a draft compliance plan that they would have to upgrade
and enhance CSU in order to resolve the discrimination complaint. That
plan called for — among other initiatives — expanding academic
programs, particularly graduate programs, and for installing equipment
in CSU dormitory rooms.

State Sen. Jeff Johnson, a Cleveland Democrat and candidate for the
congressional seat held by the retiring U.S. Rep. Louis Stokes, said he
supported the suspension of the active investigation.

“They can always reopen the investigation if the state does not
fulfill its commitments,” said Johnson, who helped lead legislative
efforts to save the school’s funding in early 1997.

The downsizing of faculty and staff “had to occur to get the
business and finances in order and to get the school funded for the
next two years,” Johnson said. “Sometimes you have to take two steps
back to take three or four steps forward.”

State Sen. Rhine McLin (D-Dayton) said she would have been more
comfortable with some sort of consent decree that would have resolved
the federal discrimination case altogether.

“I’m a little wary about this,” McLin said. “The university is on
the right track, but it could easily slip back to the way it was
through benign neglect by the legislature…. I would have preferred to
see the federal government stay in it a little longer.”

One high-ranking CSU official who asked not to be named said he
could not understand the OCR’s timing, since the university is just
beginning to push for much-needed capital improvements funding to
repair and renovate facilities.

“Two-thirds of our dorms are still shut down [by state building
inspectors], our buildings are still in deplorable condition…. Why
now?” the official asks.

Pierce acknowledged that other states that have submitted plans to
resolve their Title VI complaints have furnished more detailed plans
than Ohio did. But Ohio passed legislation designed to strengthen CSU
and invited the OCR’s input into a new mission statement for the
university, he said.

According to Pierce, OCR officials analyzed very carefully a
September 24, 1997 report to his office from Ohio Budget Director R.
Gregory Browning that outlined the state’s commitment. Pierce cited a
passage in which Browning wrote that state officials had built into CSU
“a mission and focus which will not only make it strong, but attractive
to a diverse student body, and which gives it not only a strong core
curriculum but unique programs which will allow the university to find
its market niche in Ohio public higher education.”

Pierce said, “We will monitor the implementation of the plan, and
at an appropriate time, we will determine if it has eliminated the
vestiges of discrimination” that formed the basis of the 1981 complaint.

He would not, however, estimate when that analysis will take place.
He did note that most other states have taken five years to put into
effect their remedial plans.

And if the state legislature or state officials take action against CSU before then?

“We’ll have to revisit [the issue],” Pierce said.

Mark Fisher covers higher education for the Dayton (Ohio) Daily News.

RELATED ARTICLE: Central State Regains Financial Control

DAYTON, Ohio — Central State University took another key step in
its renewal efforts February 27 when it assumed greater control over
its financial affairs.

That Friday was the last day on campus for financial officials from
the state of Ohio’s Office of Budget and Management (OBM), which had
worked with newly hired CSU financial officers to install tighter
fiscal controls and accountability at the university. The OBM stepped
in nearly a year ago at the request of Ohio’s governor and legislators
when the university fell into a financial crisis.

For much of 1997, an OBM deputy director served as CSU’s chief
financial officer. Additionally, from four to seven OBM employees
worked on campus nearly every day while CSU searched for, hired, and
trained fiscal specialists to replace them.

“This is a significant step forward,” CSU President John Garland
said. “It shows we are directly on track in the rebuilding of the
university and in regaining the complete confidence of the OBM and the
governor’s office.”

And, Garland said, it shows “that we have people in place who know what they’re doing.”

OBM Director Greg Browning called the decision to end his agency’s
daily on-site activities “a milestone” and said he had confidence in
CSU’s administration to “carry forward the work we’ve done.” But
Browning also said an as-yet-unnamed financial supervisor, required by
the Ohio General Assembly, will continue to monitor CSU’s fiscal
practices and health.

“We’ll be back in a heartbeat if we need to intervene,” he said.

Both Garland and Browning singled out for praise the work of Tim
Murphy, the deputy OBM director who served as CSU’s chief financial
officer from April 1997 through December, when he was killed in an auto
accident while traveling in Kentucky.

“Tim Murphy deserves a tremendous amount of credit for a job well done,” Browning said.

–Mark Fisher

COPYRIGHT 1998 Cox, Matthews & Associates



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