New Orleans Advocate reporter Elizabeth Crisp wrote recently about the growing concern of public higher education proliferation in Louisiana, which boasts 14 state colleges and universities serving a shrinking population that is but a fraction of other states with fewer institutions. Six of Louisiana’s institutions are historically black, and are the schools most frequently targeted to be closed or merged with geographically-proximate predominantly white schools.
Most southern states follow the same playbook, with the boldness of attempts being the only difference between regions and state governing bodies working to marginalize or eliminate black colleges. There are very specific signs that administrators and alumni have to watch for in order to identify if your school or HBCU community is in a merger culture, and the signs must yield some kind of action from graduates, students and supporters well in advance of reactionary marching and appeals for support.
5. Partnerships With Predominantly White Institutions
In 2014, Morgan State University President David Wilson attempted to craft joint degree programs with Towson University, a school at the center of a successful federal lawsuit filed by Maryland’s HBCU graduates and students against the state for maintaining a dual-system of higher ed for black and white students. Some of Wilson’s proposed programs mirrored remedies offered by the state last year in response to a court-mandated mediation between the state and the HBCU plaintiffs.
We typically think of partnerships with neighboring PWIs as a win-win for our students and for the state’s coffers. But we have to be careful about the bedfellows we make in expanding degree offerings through joint and dual-degree programs with PWIs. The adage of ‘giving an inch, yielding a mile’ has bitten many HBCUs in the past, with joint degree programs eventually resulting in program duplication, which historically creates enrollment shortfalls at black colleges.
4. States Crying Broke
Five years ago, a proposed bill calling for the merger of historically white University of New Orleans and historically black Southern University of New Orleans died, but talk of financial crisis in the state resurrected the idea almost one year ago. When states cry broke and say there are too many colleges and too many associated expenses, why is it that the black colleges are frequently the only targets? How is it that some of the oldest institutions, serving the most vulnerable populations with the fewest resources and producing the greatest industrial gains for states nationwide, remain in the crosshairs?
We’ve seen it in North Carolina, Louisiana, Florida and countless other southern states. But when the conversation of finances and higher education comes up, we must be better prepared to outline the value of HBCU economic impact, industrial contribution, and within social construct.
3. Geographic Encroachment
If a PWI is anywhere near an HBCU, there will be a point when an enterprising legislator will count his votes on a potential merger between the two institutions. Proximate schools with immense differences in funding, programs and resources are a lightening rod for consolidation. This is why the effort to develop the University of Texas system into downtown Houston is such a hot button issue for PWIs in the city. And why it is remarkably puzzling that the idea has received the endorsement of outgoing Texas Southern University President John Rudley.
2. Performance-Based Funding
If a state starts pining to attach public funding to schools’ ability to meet certain metrics of success (graduation rates, retention, diversity, etc) then be on high alert that an HBCU may be on the verge of merger or closure. This has been a topic of interest among higher ed policy researchers, and a major headline in places like Florida and Louisiana. HBCUs operate with a different set of expectations for graduating poor and typically underprepared students, but do not receive funding and legislative understanding for that mission. This lack of understanding, and the lack of advocacy we make in helping others to understand it, is what annually places recruitment and graduation rates in jeopardy.
1. Leadership Turnover
Grambling State, Elizabeth City State, FAMU, South Carolina State, Coppin State — just a few of the historically black campuses to have significant turnover in the last 10 years, and campuses which have been directly targeted for some form of closure, merger or programmatic consolidation discussion over the same period.
When politics are a part of college administration, and the politics are largely controlled by middle-aged white men with affluent black folks only allowed peripheral influence, the result is presidents who either run afoul of alumni for having a political agenda, or who run afoul of governors and legislators for ignoring the same.
The end result of either transgression — the leader must fall. And with enough turnover and lack of confidence among alumni, the HBCU won’t be far behind.