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It’s Time To Fight Back

The last few weeks, the nation’s eyes have been on Tennessee State University (TSU), a historically Black university in Nashville and Tennessee’s only publicly funded historically Black university. Earlier this month, Republican Gov. Bill Lee, backed by a Republican-led legislature, signed legislation to remove the university’s trustees, claiming financial mismanagement. However, TSU’s $2 million external forensic audit found no instances of fraud or malfeasance and less than $4,000 in questionable expenses. The audit found no fraud or malfeasance because they never occurred. There was no legitimate reason for the state government to make this move; it was a naked power grab intended to further hinder TSU and its Black students.

LaTosha BrownLaTosha BrownThe university and other HBCUs across the country do not suffer mismanagement at a greater rate than Predominantly White Institutions. They do, however, suffer from decades of underfunding by state governments. These vital institutions are critical hubs within Black communities and engines of higher opportunity for most Black students. These students deserve and are owed proper funding from their states.

TSU has been cheated out of an estimated $2.1 billion over the last three decades. But it is just the starkest example of a vast nationwide and historical injustice. As early as 1890, many states refused to match federal funds provided to Black colleges, as required by law. And that harmful and tangible racism continues today, as the Biden administration has calculated that historically Black land-grant universities in Tennessee and 15 other states have been cheated out of $12.6 billion in funding over the last three decades.

Secretary of Education Dr. Miguel A. Cardona has criticized the disparity: “Unacceptable funding inequities have forced many of our nation’s distinguished historically Black colleges and universities to operate with inadequate resources and delay critical investments in everything from campus infrastructure to research and development to student support services.”

The consequences of underfunding HBCUs are severe for not just Black communities but our nation’s overall economic health, as students at under-resourced schools face greater obstacles to future career success. Further, HBCUs remain a pathway to equity and economic success for Black Americans, enrolling10% of all Black university students and producing 17% of all Black graduates while disproportionately enrolling low-income and first-generation students.

Unfortunately, this assault on TSU is not a mere coincidence or deeply surprising. It is the next logical step in efforts to dismantle Black institutions and disempower Black people — a response to the burgeoning success of racial equity initiatives in beginning to level playing fields for Black people in education, the economy, and political representation. We are seeing a wave of racist attacks on teaching Black history, on voting rights, DEI programs, and affirmative action in education. Next in line is our bastions of higher education, as evidenced by TSU.

Dr. Wes BellamyDr. Wes BellamyBut we are not powerless to stop this effort. There is no doubt that public outcry urged Gov. Lee to appoint TSU alumni to the university’s board, which was a good call. Representation matters and the board should always reflect the needs of the campus community. However, the fact remains that TSU has significant financial obligations that must be addressed. TSU is owed more than any other HBCU in the country and this bait-and-switch game is an attempt to deflect from the state’s responsibility to the university.

Moving forward, we must not let these funding disparities fade into the background and we must hold our legislators to account for the resources allocated to our schools. We need to collectively demand that states pay up and release the federal dollars that were and are earmarked for HBCUs. It’s been 30 years in TSU’s case. We must put pressure on these states to pay the debt and fully fund our institutions. We know this can be done. For example, Virginia State University and Norfolk University have received historic funding from Virginia state legislators. Data from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, the coordinating body for colleges and universities in the commonwealth, found that in 2020-21, Virginia State and Norfolk State received the highest amount of state funding on a per in-state student basis. They were also among the top five four-year public institutions with the most significant enrollment growth, with at least 5.5% increases in their student populations. When state legislators provide significant funding to HBCUs, they help them serve their mission to educate more of our youth while acknowledging the vital contributions these institutions have made to education and the broader community. It also helps ensure their financial stability and ability to provide quality education to future generations of students. This support can be a powerful way for legislators to demonstrate their commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion in higher education.

We must continue to call on local and national leaders, HBCU alumni, students, faculty, staff, and community members to join us in this fight to hold elected officials accountable. We must continue to fight back and ensure that TSU has the leadership, resources and support it needs to continue its mission of providing high-quality education to all students. And we must intensify calls to strengthen our HBCUs by funding them at the level they deserve. The future of our country depends on their vitality.

LaTosha Brown is an award-winning organizer, philanthropic consultant, political strategist, and co-founder of the Black Voters Matter Fund.

Dr. Wes Bellamy is an associate professor of political science and public administration at Virginia State University.

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