Tuesday, December 01, 2009

7306: School Daze.


Plan to merge black colleges meets with ire

By Elizabeth Crisp, The (Jackson) Clarion-Ledger

JACKSON, Miss — Gov. Haley Barbour’s proposal to merge Mississippi’s three public historically black universities is sparking debate over its racial undertones and raising questions over the state’s funding of those colleges.

Barbour has proposed combining the smaller Mississippi Valley State and Alcorn State universities into Jackson State University. The campuses would continue to exist, he said.

The Republican made the recommendation last month as part of his budget proposal for fiscal 2011, but he has acknowledged savings would not be realized for at least a year.

Many legislators, including leaders of the Legislative Black Caucus, have vowed to block any merger that involves the historically black colleges. “I am opposed to any measure that would reduce access and opportunity to quality education at any level,” said House Universities and Colleges Committee Chairman Kelvin Buck, a Democrat.

Many of the questions about the proposal focus on its legality under the 2002 Ayers settlement, which ended a 27-year-old federal lawsuit filed in 1975 by the late Jake Ayers Sr., the father of a Jackson State University student.

The lawsuit alleged that the state of Mississippi, through its funding process, discriminated against Alcorn State, Jackson State and Valley State.

In 1992, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed that the state still had vestiges of segregation in its university system and sent the case to the lower courts to arrange a settlement. Under the deal, the Mississippi Legislature agreed to provide $503 million to the three colleges over 17 years.

U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, a plaintiff in the lawsuit, said Barbour’s proposal goes against everything the state has been trying to accomplish since agreeing to the Ayers settlement.

“In the eyes of a lot of Americans, it appears that the black colleges are being attacked once more,” he said.

To prevent violating the settlement, Thompson said he and others involved in the lawsuit would have to agree to a merger. He said he does not plan to do that.

Barbour said he was not worried a merger would violate the terms of Ayers. “The state would continue to make those payments,” he said of the yearly allocation.

Marybeth Gasman, an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania who has written extensively on black colleges, called Barbour’s proposal “ridiculous.”

“I think it violates the settlement,” she said. “The intent was to bolster those institutions. They are owed the chance to really thrive and grow.”

James Hudson, a senior at Valley State, said he is worried about the effects a merger could have on his school. “We don’t believe this is something that would help the state,” Hudson said. “It would not help the Delta at all.”

Alcorn State has 3,339 students, Valley State has 2,819, and Jackson State has 8,785.

Barbour’s proposal also includes merging Mississippi University for Women into Mississippi State University — both are traditionally white schools.

Higher Education Commissioner Hank Bounds said he is not sure whether Barbour’s merger plan is legal under Ayers or what it could mean for the settlement.

Mississippi Valley State President Donna Oliver and Alcorn State President George Ross said they were not notified of the proposal ahead of time.

“You say, ‘Here we go again,’ “ Thompson said of the plan. “The schools that have suffered the most at the hands of Mississippi politicians are the ones he has selected for this plan. Virtually all of the historically white institutions would go untouched.”

Contributing: Chris Joyner, The Clarion-Ledger

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