Last Monday, Governor Haley Barbour of Mississippi dropped a bombshell in his new budget proposal. From the Jackson Free Press:
In his Nov. 16 budget proposal, Barbour announced that the state was facing a $715 million budget shortfall in fiscal year 2011 and another $500 million shortage in fiscal year 2012. In addition to merging the state’s HBCUs, he suggested many draconian budget cuts in response to the impending shortage.
“This budget proposes merging Mississippi Valley State and Alcorn State with Jackson State. No campus would close, but administration would be unified and significant savings achieved,” Barbour said in a release, expecting $35 million in savings from the mergers. “Our historically black universities would be united into a premier university with the land-grant agriculture and technical advantages of Alcorn, MVSU’s Delta campus and JSU as an emerging great urban university.”
Barbour explained that the Alcorn and MVSU campuses would still continue to function, although there would be a “rationalization” of class offerings at the campuses, implying the merger would result in classes and curriculums being cut.
The wonderfully-insightful Philadelphia attorney who writes the eponymous blog Field Negro first brought this story to my attention last Thursday after he was invited to attend the Minority Broadband Summit in DC, sponsored by the Alliance for Digital Equality. (btw, many thanks to Field for turning me on to the Alliance for Digital Equality in preparation for the ScienceOnline2010 session, Engaging underrepresented groups in online science media.”)
The story is quite emotionally charged, especially among students at the schools potentially affected, and has drawn increasing attention over the last week. Most online accounts I have found do not buy into the “premier university” argument of Barbour’s, citing instead that this merger would undermine the traditional strengths and missions of each university. Field’s comment thread is now running at over 140 and contains both positive and negative comments, ranging from perceptions this move is deserved given widespread fiscal mismanagement at HBCUs to the contention that HBCUs still serve an essential purpose in educating all underrepresented minorities and that their missions would be diluted by administrative merger into predominantly-white institutions.
I recognize that some readers may not be familiar with the term, HBCU. As a white Northerner who has now spent a third of his life in the South, I had not known that historically-black colleges and universities (HBCUs) were designated by the federal government as part of the 1965 Higher Education Act as, “any historically black college or university that was established prior to 1964, whose principal mission was, and is, the education of black Americans.”
There are currently 103 such institutions in the US, 41 of which are public institutions like Mississippi’s. This map and list from the US Department of Education will give you a feel for the broad distribution of these institutions.
As I wrote in my post for 2008 National HBCU Week,
[T]he African American community, sometimes supported by non-black supporters, had to establish their own universities as it was recognized that education was one path to equality. In fact, while nearly all HBCUs are south of the Mason-Dixon Line, the original HBCUs were in Pennsylvania (what is now Cheyney University (1837) and Lincoln University (1854)) and Ohio (Wilberforce University (1856)) and were established by the generosity of Quaker, Episcopalian, and other abolitionist supporters.
Why specifically should ScienceBlogs readers care about HBCUs and this Mississippi story?
The contribution of HBCUs to the advancement of African Americans cannot be understated, especially in medicine and the STEM disciplines. Xavier University in New Orleans ranks first in the nation in African American students admitted to medical schools and ranks third in the production of African American Doctor of Pharmacy graduates. Michelle J Nealy in Diverse Issues in Higher Education has also noted:
While HBCUs represent only 3 percent of all colleges and universities, they enroll close to one-third of all Black students. Forty percent of HBCU students pursue four-year degrees in science, technology, engineering and math, and about half of all Black students in teaching fields attended HBCUs. Three-quarters of all African-American Ph.D.s did their undergraduate studies at an HBCU, and, according to a study conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics, the total economic impact of the nation’s HBCUs in 2001 was $10.2 billion.
HBCUs have traditionally also provided affordable education to all groups, a point that should not be lost in this debate as noted by the Jackson Free Press:
Other legislators remarked that HBCUs offer a considerably less expensive education that is important to many minority students. Tuition at the University of Mississippi–which is not subject to a merger under Barbour’s proposal–is $5,106 a semester for in-state students, while out-of-state students pay $13,050. A semester of tuition at Jackson State University, comparatively, costs only $2,317 for Mississippi students and $3,362 for out-of-state students.
There are far more issues in this Mississippi case, such as the wisdom of merging institutions that are up to 80 miles apart, requiring that students would take general humanities course at one institution and specialty courses at another. Merging Alcorn State and Jackson State would be as widely accepted by alumni as merging Michigan and Michigan State or Florida and Florida State.
Such proposals also reopen the discussion as to the need for HBCUs in 2009, an issue for which I collected numerous blog posts pro and con as detailed in the second half of my own 2008 post (making me realize that I need to update it.).
Scott Jascik at Inside Higher Ed had one of the best overviews of the situation last week, with commentary from University of Pennsylvania Black education expert, Dr Marybeth Gasman, and civil rights attorney and former North Carolina Central University chancellor, Julius L Chambers.