While board votes remain yet cast and the future for other HBCUs remains yet unknown, the University System of Georgia deserves a lot of credit for willfully doing what states and systems throughout the south have fought for generations — upholding the U.S. Constitution and dismantling segregated systems of higher education.
Last week, USG Chancellor Hank Huckaby announced plans to propose the consolidation of Darton State College and Albany State University, which if approved, would mark just the second time in US history that public predominantly white and historically black colleges would merge to create a larger, standalone HBCU. The news peeled back layers of joy and concern for many in both campus communities. What happens to degree programs, jobs, culture and tradition when two schools get together like this?
The answer already exists in the past example of Tennessee State University, which merged with the University of Tennessee — Nashville in 1979 after years of litigation opposing the state’s purposeful establishment of a ‘separate but equal’ public system of higher education for blacks and whites. That merger helped to establish a TSU we know today as among the most racially diverse, comprehensive degree-granting HBCUs in the country, with white students making up more than 25 percent of its total student population in 2013.
The future example lies ahead in the state of Maryland, where a federal judge awaits a counter-proposal from the Maryland Higher Education Commission in response to a proposed overhaul of the system as a result of another ‘separate but equal’ lawsuit filed by HBCU alumni and students in 2006. Judge Catherine Blake ruled in 2013 that Maryland purposefully and thoroughly duplicated degree programs, ignored all rules of financial efficiency and diminished the ability for HBCUs to compete in a fair marketplace for students as a result of its dual system of education along racial lines.
She suggested that merger and transfer of programs back to the HBCUs was the only responsible method of remedy.
But between the past and future stands Georgia, with its own unique history of institutional infringement and mission creep against HBCUs. It’s difficult to find a public HBCU in the state which doesn’t have a predominantly white college 30 minutes or less from its gates. Savannah State University has Armstrong State University, and Fort Valley State University has Middle Georgia State University as their PWI neighbors and political pink elephants — just as Albany State always considered Darton State.
And with Georgia’s history of reveling in, profiting from and trying to overcome racism, HBCU alumni and supporters are left to cautious optimism with the proposed ASU-DSC merger. Is it really a new day in Georgia, or is this merger a ‘we’ll give you one, but take the other two’ gotcha move?
You have to believe that Georgia, with large portions of its local economies built around colleges and universities, understands the legal and cultural ramifications of consolidations involving HBCUs, with scenarios mapped out for black colleges surviving, and for HBCUs being fully enveloped into neighboring white colleges. State officials have probably monitored previous lawsuits, conducted surveys, contracted out for feasibility studies and used every other tool to figure what will be the best political, cultural, and legal outcome for students, businesses and citizens alike.
If the Albany State proposal, and the announcement of a permanent president for Fort Valley State are any indicators, signs point to Georgia’s public HBCUs having a chance to grow into the future. And while loyalties, like campus leaders, can change, the legislature and the higher ed officials know that HBCU development is not only a good look during a time of national racial strife, but it is also federal law, protected in part by hundreds HBCU graduates and students being undefeated in federal lawsuits filed in Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, Louisiana and Maryland.
Chancellor Huckaby and state officials deserve a lot of credit for not operating in fear or around cultural traditions concerning HBCUs in the state. In truth, every example of an HBCU receiving more resources or support has always yielded positive gains for the state and its workforce capacity, economic output and political equity. And the same would be true in Georgia, where agriculture, tech and liberal arts industries are exploding in and around Atlanta.
Supporters have always regarded Albany State as ‘unsinkable,’ and advocates nationwide are rejoicing that the state has embraced that motto to advance stronger economic efficiency, and race relations for all citizens. Here’s hoping that the Georgia precedent is one that states throughout the south duplicate in order to avoid litigation, and forced entry into America’s new day of business and racial equality.