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The Unfinished Business of HBCUs

Public historically Black colleges and universities have served the under-represented well in the years since Adams v. Richardson, but states can no longer continue to underfund HBCUs if these schools are to become “comparable and competitive” with traditionally White institutions, a panel of former and current HBCU leaders concluded Thursday at a conference at Morgan State University.

“The magnitude of disparity between public HBCUs and historically White institutions remains particularly great,” said Lezli Baskerville, president and chief executive officer of the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education, the facilitator of the Presidential Round Table panel entitled “The Unfinished Business of Parity in the Adams States: The Promise and the Perils.”

The problem is, “public higher education is disengaging from educating the growing populations in their states,” she said, referring to African American, Latino and Asian American populations.

In the nearly 40 years since the Adams case, which required federal education officials to monitor the desegregation of public colleges in states with separate higher education systems for Blacks and Whites, little has been done to make HBCUs truly competitive. Inequitable public funding, program duplication at nearby schools, and a reluctance to fully integrate the student bodies are among the problems holding back HBCUs, the panel said.

A lack of funding has been an acute problem, said the panelists – Julius L. Chambers, former chancellor of North Carolina Central University; John J. Oliver, former chair of the Maryland Higher Education Commission (MHEC); and Dr. Mary Sias, president of Kentucky State University – with each giving examples from their own struggles.

Chambers said he watched money go to schools like the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, with its impressive and profitable athletic program, as NCCU struggled to make ends meet. Trying to divert funding for his school, especially when he suggested it come from athletics, was nearly impossible.

“We watched as North Carolina deprived our young children of opportunity,” he said, “when they told us we couldn’t get dollars for the program.”

Recounting his battles as MHEC chair from 1999 to 2005, Oliver said Maryland fell short in trying to address the disparity between Black and traditionally White institutions (TWIs), saying it was the worst he had seen in any state.

“It’s like the Grand Canyon is in front of you and you’re going to throw a bucket of sand and think that solves the problem,” he said, referring to the few million dollars the legislature ultimately allocated.

At Kentucky State, Sias tried to scrounge up money to fix leaky roofs and provide residential housing while beating back the state’s attempts to convert the university, which legislators did not think could grow, into a community college. Since Sias became president in 2004, she secured some extra state funding, which has resulted in a 300-student jump in enrollment at the 2,500-student school.

“It’s not enough to do everything that needs to be done,” she said. “A lot of people are dragging their feet and holding us back.”

States must provide extra funding, and not just matching the money going to flagship and other institutions, in order to help mitigate years of neglect and to make HBCUs truly competitive.

“We have been spending less money more efficiently, more effectively than any other. … We ought not hesitate to ask [for more],” Chambers said.

But funding issues are not the only ones holding HBCUs back. The panel lamented the duplication of academic programs at nearby TWIs that siphon students away from HBCUs. “You need to take the dollars and invest in the existing institution,” Oliver said. “That will promote diversity.”

Another problem may simply be reluctance on the part of HBCUs to embrace what it means to become a fully competitive, integrated institution.

“Most Black people I know don’t want to talk about this issue,” Chambers said. Some fear that this means they will lose their character as an HBCU if they develop a predominantly non-Black student body. Others worry that this will lead to fewer Black presidents and fewer opportunities for faculty of color, he added.

But the most important thing is to “develop an institution that will provide an education for all people,” he said, as Morgan State and other HBCUs have done for African-Americans and other disadvantaged, under-represented students for decades, some more than a century.

“You can never take away the fact that Morgan will always be historically Black,” Oliver said. “I don’t think that Morgan will lose its identity, ever.”

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