The nation's historically black colleges and universities have been essential to the success of African-Americans since 1837. Popularly known as HBCUs, these schools remain important, producing 23 percent of black college graduates even though they constitute only 3 percent of the nation's colleges and universities.
This success, however, may not protect publicly funded HBCUs from emerging ethnic and economic realities that are requiring changes in higher education. In several states that are home to public HBCUs, lawmakers are questioning — some openly challenging — the continued need for these schools and their unique burden to taxpayers.
In November 2008, Georgia state Sen. Seth Harp, a white Republican, proposed the merger of two of the state's historically black public universities with two predominantly white colleges. As chairman of the powerful Senate Higher Education Commission, Harp argued that the merger of black Savannah State University with Armstrong Atlantic University in Savannah and that of black Albany State with two-year Darton College in Albany would help the state reduce a looming deficit in the university system. Georgia's third public HBCU, Fort Valley State, is not near a white college and was not part of the merger proposal for that reason.
Although protests quickly killed Harp's proposal in the legislature, the seeds for the movement to merge public HBCUs had been planted. Doubtless, the merger movement will grow as higher education budgets continue to erode.
HBCU supporters will have to use more than emotion and allusions to a glorious past to stave off change.
In November, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, prompted by declining revenues, proposed merging the state's three HBCUs — Jackson State, Alcorn State and Mississippi Valley State — into one HBCU. Higher education officials said such a merger would save the state $180 million by 2012.
Like in Georgia, Mississippi legislators, responding to fierce protests from blacks, have declared the proposal dead on arrival. Unlike in Georgia, however, the president of one of the Mississippi HBCUs in the merger proposal has his own plan for merging the three universities.
After Barbour announced his plan, Ronald Mason Jr., president of Jackson State, spoke in private with lawmakers about his proposal to merge the three universities into a new HBCU. The new school would be named Jacobs State University after H.P Jacobs, a former slave and a founder of Jackson State.
When news of Mason's proposal leaked to the press, protests and calls for his resignation erupted at Jackson State and other several HBCU communities around the nation. Having led Jackson State since 2000, and lauded nationally as one of the best HBCU presidents, Mason has not backed down.
During a meeting last week with more than 300 Jackson State students, Mason outlined some of the practical benefits of a merger. The new university would be able to consolidate many functions, including human resources, purchasing, clerical and sports.
"All I've been trying to get is a conversation," he said, as reported by the Clarion-Ledger in Jackson. "My opinion is that one strong HBCU in Mississippi is better than three weak ones. … The truth sometimes is difficult to deal with. It's much easier to play to people's fears than to tell them the honest reality of things. I know the challenges we face today. We could stop the (governor's) merger and still end up losing the schools. If not this, then what? This really would be a model for the next generation of HBCUs. I've thought about this a lot. In my mind, if we don't come together, we could end up dying apart."
Although Mason's attempt to get a "conversation" apparently is falling on deaf ears as calls for his resignation continue, his ideas are not going away. Legislators in other states, including Florida, home to historically black Florida A&M University, are looking for substantial budget cuts. FAMU is safer than most other HBCUs because it is the lone public one in Florida and because it has an engineering collaboration with nearby Florida State University.
A growing number of blacks are going further than Mason. They believe that despite their usefulness, public HBCUs are anachronisms.
"There is no good reason to maintain separate-but-equal public facilities in close proximity," wrote columnist Cynthia Tucker of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "Today, vestiges of that outdated system remain in the form of colleges that are publicly funded and virtually all-black, frozen in place by inertia, political timidity and confusion about the mission of public institutions. Institutions supported by taxpayers should be diverse, educating men and women of all colors and creeds. There is no longer good reason for public colleges that are all-white or all-black."
HBCU leaders and supporters cannot continue to ignore the likes of Harp, Barbour, Mason and Tucker. The hard "conversation" has begun.