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In Georgia, the budget crunch has prompted one state senator to propose closing some public colleges, but not the ones you think.

Seth Harp speaks with a distinctive Georgia drawl that authenticates his Deep South roots, but also hints at a former life as a captain in the United States Marine Corps.

Despite such bona fides, Harp is a far cry from the stereotypical White, racist Republican that he’s being painted as in some media circles. To the contrary, at least at first glance, Harp appears to be more of a contradiction in terms.

Case in point: Harp calls himself “a conservative Republican who happens to be progressive.” And he sees nothing wrong with that.

Last month, as the Georgia Senate chairman of the Higher Education Committee, Harp caused a bit of a firestorm when he suggested merging two of Georgia’s historically Black universities with nearby majority White campuses.

But this son of the South doesn’t want to shut down the Black colleges; he’s going after the White ones. He calls it, “eliminating the competition.”

“There will still be historically Black colleges and universities. I just want to bring the quality of education up and make them very desirable schools,” he says. “I can’t dilute the history of these schools; the history is written. It’s there.”

Political Will Versus Economic Reality

Georgia, like many other states, is facing a budget shortfall of about $2.5 billion, according to the Georgia Budget & Policy Institute. To help cope with its money woes, the state’s university system alone has to make at least $200 million in cuts, if not more.

With a current operating budget of $2.3 billion, this could mean up to 12 percent in cuts for each of the state’s 35 public colleges and universities, Harp tells Diverse. Many schools have already identified about 7 percent in cuts through layoffs, increasing class sizes, offering fewer courses and leaving job vacancies unfilled. State education officials have also proposed merging 14 of Georgia’s 34 technical colleges, which they say will yield up to $1.5 million per school.

Harp announced in December that he hopes to duplicate similar savings by shutting down predominantly White Armstrong Atlantic State University and merging it with historically Black Savannah State University. Both located in the coastal city of Savannah, the schools are 12 miles apart, less than a 20- minute drive from one another. He also wants to close mostly White Darton College Seth and combine it with mostly Black Albany State University, which are about five miles — or less than a 15-minute drive — away from each other in Albany.

The only reason Harp’s proposal hasn’t touched Fort Valley State University, the state’s third HBCU, is because there isn’t another school in close proximity, he says.

Erroll Davis, the chancellor of the University System of Georgia, as well as the presidents of the two HBCUs affected by Harp’s proposal are hesitant to talk about a potential merger.

Drs. Everette Freeman and Earl Yarbrough Sr., presidents of Albany State and Savannah State, respectively, both declined multiple requests to talk with Diverse. In fact, Harp says he hasn’t heard from the presidents either.

Davis, who joined the university system three years ago, initially appeared not to want to wade into the political fray. Now he is taking a stronger stand. When Harp first raised the proposal during a budget hearing, Davis said: “You can make obvious arguments about the economics of it, but I don’t think economics will drive the decision. It’s going to be a political decision, not an economic decision.” According to news reports, Davis added that if the “body politic” wants the Board of Regents to look at mergers, it will.

Weeks later, Davis told Diverse in an e-mail that he believes “it would be a mistake to dilute the mission (of HBCUs) in the name of administrative efficiencies.” Those efficiencies, he said, “could be captured in other ways.”

One of the ways state officials hope to save money is by consolidating back office operations, such as payroll, across the 35-campus university system, Davis said. Albany State, Armstrong Atlantic State, Darton, and Savannah State will all participate in this consolidation, he added.

Officials could not say how much money this would save the state, and Davis declined to discuss whether he thought merging the four colleges would produce further cost savings.

‘A Child of the South’

Harp could easily be mistaken as kin to the sharp-witted lawyer from the television series “Matlock.” The 65-year-old divorce attorney who attended Mercer University School of Law in Macon, Ga., laces his fingers, fixes his eyes firmly, and speaks softly when making a persuasive argument.

Besides the state’s pressing money problems, Harp says he wants to close the door on Georgia’s racist past and to finally begin a healing process. Born in Arkansas, Harp says he has seen the injustices of racial discrimination and segregation up close.

“I am a child of the South, I have seen it,” Harp recalls while leaning across his desk in the law office that doubles as his legislative district office. “I was at Auburn University when it was desegregated.

I was there on campus when it happened, it was like an armed camp, and then it went away. Black students came to Auburn and everybody kinda yawned,” he adds. “Unlike the University of Alabama where we had George Wallace standing in the schoolhouse door, Auburn was peacefully done and we didn’t have any problems.”

“And in 2008, we just elected Barack Obama president of the United States. If now is not the time, I don’t know when it will ever be,” says Harp, his voice rising. “We have made a statement in this country that there are no glass ceilings if you are an articulate, well-spoken person who is obviously educated and can create hope; that person can go wherever they want to in this country. Now is the time for us to really work to heal the wounds of segregation. My proposal helps this process.”

But Savannah State and Albany State universities are still more than 90 percent Black, whereas the neighboring predominantly White colleges are just barely so — Darton is only about 53 percent White, while Armstrong Atlantic’s 3,800-student population is 63.7 percent White, according to school officials. The data suggest the state’s African- Americans don’t have a problem going to White schools; it’s the other way around.

Harp acknowledges this.

“It raises a real legal question to me; legally we can’t operate separate Black and White schools,” he says. “Whites choose not to go to these Black institutions and what I’m trying to do is give them an urging by closing their White schools and merging them in with the historically Black schools. It’s eliminating the competition.” Savannah State, for example, competes against two schools.

“If we build an institution that offers a quality product, a quality education, they will come,” is Harp’s retort to naysayers of his plan.

Harp insists he’s not picking on Black colleges. He’s picking on communities that don’t have the population or financial resources to support more than one school.

He notes the successful merger of the predominantly White University of Tennessee Nashville campus with predominantly Black Tennessee State University.

An Unlikely Ally

When Harp first brought up his proposal, he found support from one of the most unlikely places possible: the African-American editorial page editor of the state’s flagship newspaper, Cynthia Tucker of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

In her column, Tucker says Harp has the right idea.

“ … There is no good reason to maintain separate but equal public facilities in close proximity,” Tucker wrote. “ … Many Black educators continue to insist that historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) provide a nurturing environment that some Black students desperately need. However, de facto segregation isn’t required to give those students remedial studies, small class sizes and attentive teachers, all of which are also available at many diverse two-year colleges.”

“More likely, Black college administrators and alumni are worried about losing a sense of history and identity bound up with institutions that have educated generations of Black students,” she continues. “Savannah State and Albany State each have fraternities and sororities, sports teams, bands and clubs that have played an active role in the lives of students and the surrounding communities.

“Instead of fighting to preserve the status quo,” Tucker suggests supporters of the Black colleges “work to create new institutions that provide a nurturing environment for all students.”

Harp also enjoys the support of citizens around the state as well as the country, as evidenced by the letters he’s received since his idea has gotten so much media attention.

But the Georgia Board of Regents is ultimately responsible for distributing money to the state’s public colleges and is charged with determining school mergers; the only thing legislators like Harp can do is to use the bully pulpit of their offices and levy budget cuts to effect change.

Harp plans to do both.

As of press time Harp was expected to introduce in the opening days of the legislative session a resolution urging the regents to consider his proposal. “Consolidation saves money,” he says. “What we’ve got to do is spend our money wisely. The beast that we’re dancing with is that we don’t have the money, on a magnitude of $2 to $3 billion. Colleges can absorb about 7 or 8 percent in cuts, but not 10.”

History Repeating Itself?

This isn’t the first time the subject of merging the state’s historically Black public colleges has arisen. On previous occasions, the notion has been fiercely beaten back by Black and White citizens alike.

As Harp’s idea gains traction, this time could be different.

If Georgia’s Board of Regents does seriously consider Harp’s plan, the outcry, which has already started, will be loud and fierce. No sooner had Harp uttered the words Black colleges and merger, than alumni of the state’s three public HBCUs sprang into action.

William Johnson, president of the Albany State University National Alumni Association, says Albany State backers won’t take the issue laying down.

“It’s the same rhetoric and attempt that is tried every four or five years or so,” he says. “I think you still have that mentality of individuals who feel that predominantly Black institutions are not productive. It happens because of a few misguided minds. They are just out of touch with today and the institutions they are talking about.”

“But you’ve also got determination of alumni for both institutions to educate and make it known that this kind of attempt to dilute these institutions will not be accepted without some resistance or some fight,” Johnson adds. “A wait-and-see approach is not an appropriate approach. We’ve been discussing different ways of addressing the (Georgia) Senate, the Board of Regents as well as members of the chancellor’s staff.”

This whole episode re-opens wounds from the fight for equality in higher education in the South. In the late 1970s and through the 1980s, a series of lawsuits were waged to desegregate higher education: A 1975 suit accusing Mississippi of maintaining separate higher education systems for Blacks and Whites sought more money and better programs for HBCUs. The U.S. Justice Department, long critical of Mississippi’s educational system, joined the case; it was eventually settled in 2000.

As part of a 1997 desegregation settlement agreement, Black colleges in Alabama were to be given $1 million to provide scholarships to recruit White students, but that resulted in another lawsuit attacking the Whites-only scholarships. Other states such as Georgia, Pennsylvania and Texas have also faced legal challenges and court orders to redress past wrongs and put HBCUs on equal footing.

The Thurgood Marshall College Fund, a national organization that represents the country’s public HBCUs, is intervening with a letter to Georgia Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue expressing its concerns about Harp’s proposition. Dwayne Ashley, the organization’s president and CEO, says Harp’s idea is not going anywhere, and his group plans to make sure of that.

Ashley says everybody is having to tighten their belts and that historically Black institutions are no different. “But it doesn’t mean you have to go out of business,” he adds. “It means that you delay some of your capital expenditures, you cut back on your expenses and you operate lean, but you still can deliver quality educational services the same way the majority institutions are going to have to do throughout the states.”

“And any attempt to merge historically Black colleges and universities, which play a vital role in states across the country, will be met with serious opposition from alumni and supporters of these institutions,” Ashley says.

Despite the fact similar merger proposals have failed before, Harp says he has reasons to be encouraged this time. “Two things: Money and Obama,” he says.

“If people can’t see that things have changed, then they’ve got their heads stuck in the sand. I’m going to make sure we’re offering a quality education at all of our state institutions, pushing and shoving if I have to.”

—Add Seymour Jr. contributed to this report.

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