Trustees at Winston-Salem State University this morning announced and canceled an emergency meeting for this afternoon, less than a day after controversial comments by Chancellor Elwood Robinson about Senate Bill 873 and its impact on HBCUs stoked tempers throughout North Carolina’s HBCU communities.
Alumni and students levied criticism at Robinson yesterday afternoon, after the chancellor seemingly offered support and optimism about Senate Bill 873 by way of a Facebook message. Calling elements of the bill “exciting,” Robinson emphasized the removal of proposed name changes and student fee adjustments for Elizabeth City State University, Winston-Salem State University and Fayetteville State University, the three historically black institutions named among five public universities listed in the bill for consideration.
But he did not address potential budge shortfalls or closure potential by the bill’s request to cap student tuition at $500 per semester for in-state students, and $2,500 per semester for out-of-state students.
“There is no doubt that Senate Bill 873 will have a tremendous impact on our campus. In many ways, this bill is exciting because it opens the door to a college education for many deserving students. As Chancellor, my goal is to ensure we have the resources that allow us to continue to offer those students a high-quality education provided by student-centered faculty in a caring and supportive atmosphere.”
Jerry M. Shortt, a WSSU board member and chair of its finance committee, says that he understands the community reaction to the legislation, and the impact it may have on what he calls an “invaluable” institution for North Carolina.
“From what I’ve been able to tell, the bill seems to be well-intentioned, but we want to be careful that in an attempt to do something good, that we don’t create something that will be a detriment as well,” said Shortt in a telephone conversation. “Will it decrease enrollment? Will it decrease the ability to recruit folks from in our state? Is this dumbing down, to some degree, the education process? Those are all things we have to discuss in the near future.”
Shortt, who is the owner of North Carolina-based Whitestone Financial, says that he has called his state representatives to ask for their interpretations of the bill, and while he has not heard back from them, expects for the board to consider an official position on the legislation in the near future.
Shortt says that decreasing costs for consumers is always a “win-win,” but says that quality cannot be forfeited for savings in the short on long-term, specifically referencing the bill’s proposal to fund revenue gaps caused by the tuition cuts with a $70 million payout in the 2018–19 academic year, but with no guarantees for future funding.
“As an entrepreneur, my business is service oriented, we would drop our costs to help advocate for our consumer. And that’s a good thing in creating affordability. But the other side is that you don’t want to compromise the service aspect by reducing costs. Rolling back $70 million into HBCUs sounds good, but from a legislative perspective, we’ve got to make sure that’s something we can look forward to in perpetuity.”
Alumni of all of the state’s historically black colleges and universities have planned to rally in Raleigh this afternoon to denounce the bill, which supporters say will help to increase college affordability and enrollment at schools which have struggled with both in recent years.
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WSSU Trustee Coretta Bigelow says that legislators have not assessed each school individually for its performance or potential, and that lack of insight drives a community view of racism in the bill’s intent and advancement.
“I can only comment as a private citizen, but what I think what we’re seeing is some disparate treatment,” she said. “How they are targeting the five universities that they’ve targeted, it seems like they are trying to put these specific universities out of business. I get the feeling that most black folks in North Carolina feel that there is some racism there. Maybe a couple of the universities had some financial difficulties, but they’ve not looked at or considered the performance of all of the universities.”
Bigelow says that alumni are entitled to be concerned about the bill’s impact, but that the goal for stakeholders remains in negotiations with legislators about what elements can be amended or removed.
“They aren’t backing down from HB2, and they may not back down from this bill. But they may back down to some components of this bill. There are some petitions that are out, just like there have been petitions against HB2, and it hasn’t really helped. We have to get out to the polls, and in communication with our lawmakers, or we’re going to see more of this.”