Haley Barbour proposal to merge Mississippi HBCUs meets with ire

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.


More like this

When I went away to college after the summer when MTV was first launched, I had never heard of the term, "Historically Black Colleges and Universities." But during the following summer while taking organic chemistry, I lived in a dorm with two visiting HBCU students who were doing internships at a…
In the United States, this is currently National HBCU Week (presidential proclamation here) and yesterday marked the end of the annual academic conference on HBCUs ("Seizing the Capacity to Thrive!") in Washington, DC. HBCUs span from Michigan and Ohio to Texas, Florida, and the US Virgin Islands…
On June 3rd and 4th, I had the pleasure of attending a fabulous program on the modern role and future sustainability of historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in the United States. The HBCU Symposium: Setting the Agenda for Historically Black Colleges and Universities was the…
Last week, the New York Times college admissions and aid blog, The Choice, solicited readers for questions on US historically-black colleges and universities (HBCUs). These 105 HBCUs, primarily in the southern US, were defined by the Higher Education Act of 1965 as institutions of higher learning…

Looking at the tuition disparity gives me some clues as to how Governor Barbour expects to save money.

By D. C. Sessions (not verified) on 23 Nov 2009 #permalink

To the outsider it always seems mysterious why, 50 years after the desegregation of (sorry for the euphemism) historically white colleges, HBCUs are a good thing to have. To me, any organization that bases its admission on race or gender as criterion has no place in the 21st century.

Wait, don't tell me - you're a white male, right?

By neurospasm (not verified) on 23 Nov 2009 #permalink

Thanks for this and your other posts about HBCUs, Abel. Several of my high school classmates chose to attend HBCUs in Texas (TSU and Prairie View A&M in particular), and they have excellent careers in various health care professions, or in academia and education. My mom would run into them at work in the medical center, and then needle me about faffing around in graduate school without apparent hope of earning power.

Certainly the choice to attend an HBCU goes beyond financial considerations, and I wouldn't presume to second-guess anyone's complex reasons. When I was getting ready to move to New Orleans from the DFW area, I asked an administrator in our department about the best driving route. She occasionally took her kids to visit her ex-husband's parents in New Orleans, so I figured she would know. She insisted that I drive on I-20 to Jackson, and then south to New Orleans, rather than taking the significantly shorter route on I-49 through Alexandria. She had attended Grambling State University, and pointed out that Grambling was a safe place to stop, if I got into trouble. People would help me, and she still had friends there. There was no such safe place to stop on the I-49 route, in her opinion, and the entire center of the state was pretty hostile territory for a woman. Until then, my blue-eyed white girl privilege had allowed me to think that no driving territory in the US should be off-limits or dangerous to me (I pay taxes for this interstate ELEVENTY!!!1111!INDIGNATION). Never again did I automatically (and arrogantly) assume that I could fully understand anyone's choices about where to live, travel, or go to university. Nor do I have the right to grill them about it.

I wanted to address the comment from Mu who said, "To me, any organization that bases its admission on race or gender as criterion has no place in the 21st century."

It is a common misconception that many people have to say that HBCU's base admission on race. It is not the case. Many HBCU's have diverse student populations and programs and no one is screened out because of race. The simple fact is these schools have a historical designation that remains and should remain. I consider it very similar to the designation that Notre Dame or Villanova have as Catholic universities and Harvard or Yale have as Ivy League schools.

Would we ask any of those to stop using those distinctions? Would be assume that Notre Dame and Villanova screens out non-Catholics? or that Harvard or Yale screen out based on income?

That is not to say that the students attending any of these schools won't fit a certain profile. They will. Simply because people should be able to go where they choose in this great country of ours. Several factors influence where students end up in college. We need to see HBCU's in the same way we view other schools that cluster around what they have in common.


i think it should be about races

By caritaboler (not verified) on 09 Dec 2009 #permalink

How were African American colleges created in the midst of overwhelming odds against it ever coming to fruition? There were several sources that participated in founding higher education with diversity and inclusivity for African Americans. âHistorically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) were established to provide equal educational opportunities for former slaves and freedmen who were denied admission to their states original 1862 land-grant university system. Currently there are 105 HBCUâs that are nationally or regionally accredited; 18 of these institutions were established as 1890 Land Grants, and 51 are publically funded â(Mykerezi., E, 2004, pg 305)â.
âThe HBCUâs were not designed to succeed rather they were established to appease Black people or to serve as âholding institutionsâ so that Black students would not matriculate in historically White colleges and universities. Many historically Black colleges and universities began their journey because of racism that evil human frailty that says one race of people are superior to another because of the race of the supposedly superior group. Indeed, racism was the reason Black people in the western nations were not allowed to attend the same schools as White people. The result of which called for a separate school system (Evans, A 2002, pg 3)â. However, the HBCUâs exceeded expectations then and continue to serve higher education across America.
At times it seemed that they were created to keep the race line taught. In the end it did not matter how or why, it mattered that they became a method to educate and prepare African Americans for leadership then and into the 21st century. Their mission has changed but the vision has not. The HBCUâs found a niche in our society by providing African Americans with institution that they can call their own. Allowing their children and their children whether underprivileged or not to study in a caring and supportive environment.

By Anonymous (not verified) on 24 Jun 2010 #permalink