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A Mixed Blessing?
Critics object to Mississippi's settlement of a 1975 anti-segregation lawsuit involving the state's "historically black universities"

By Kay Mills
Jackson, Mississippi

More than three decades of courtroom efforts to desegregate higher education systems in 19 southern and border states have produced enrollment increases for black students, but some critics believe that the historically black colleges and universities still lag far behind traditionally white schools when it comes to financial support.

Here in Mississippi, as in most of the 19 states, there has been some progress. Black enrollment has increased somewhat, especially in many traditionally white institutions. New academic programs and new buildings have been added, in an effort to improve the quality of the historically black schools and also to entice more white students to attend them.

Yet 11 of the 19 states, including Mississippi, are still being monitored by the Office for Civil Rights, in the U.S. Department of Education, or by the federal courts. Many supporters of the historically black universities (HBUs) fear that further implementation of the court orders will be stymied by state budget problems and lack of political will.

 
The proposed Mississippi settlement "creates haves and have-nots," says Malvin Williams, vice president for academic affairs at Alcorn State.
(Photo by Tom Roster, Black Star, for CrossTalk)
 
Across the South there is "a formal mechanism to promote access and opportunity without the infrastructure of financial aid and recruitment of better faculty and good students," said Lynn Huntley, president of the Southern Education Foundation, a research and advocacy group.

There is "a K-12 pipeline that is not robust, and a community college pool (of students) that may not be having a chance to transfer to four-year schools," Huntley said. "It's a recipe for basically a stalled effort." She added, "Most people believe the problem has been solved, because more black students are attending historically white schools."

In the 16 states belonging to the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB), which helps its members form long-range plans, black enrollment at all higher education institutions-two-year and four-year, public and private-increased by 33 percent between 1994 and 2001, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Nationally, black enrollment increased 22 percent in that same time period.

Only 28 percent of black students in the South now attend historically black institutions. In West Virginia, two campuses that were predominantly black-Bluefield State and West Virginia State-are now majority white. A majority of black students in the 16 SREB states attends two-year institutions, but so does a majority of white students.

The expansion of Alcorn State's offerings on its Vicksburg campus has enabled four women-Mary Peoples, Ruby Thomas, Brooke Hughes and Jule Peukert-to take classes at night while working during the day.
(Photo by Tom Roster, Black Star, for CrossTalk)
 
In Mississippi, black enrollment at traditionally white institutions ranges from 13 percent at the University of Mississippi to 37 percent at Delta State University.

"Of course, there has been progress," said M. Christopher Brown, executive director of the Frederick Patterson Institute of the United Negro College Fund. "However, the original question, which is remediation (for past underfunding), has not been addressed." Mississippi illustrates the degree of neglect HBUs faced and the patchwork nature of the current solutions. For many years, the bulk of the state's higher education budget went to the white universities. For example, from 1970 to 1974, Mississippi State University received $41.4 million, while Alcorn State University, like Mississippi State a land-grant institution but an historically black one, got only $9.4 million.

A lawsuit filed in 1975 by activist Jake Ayers and the Black Mississippians' Council for Higher Education charged that Mississippi had maintained a racially segregated higher education system and that campuses serving black students were markedly inferior to those educating whites.

In response, the state argued that its responsibility was to institute non-discriminatory admissions and hiring practices, not to remedy conditions that came about from decades of underfunding.

In 1992 the U.S. Supreme Court rejected that argument and sent the case back to the state for remedial action. In 2001, after more legal maneuvering, the State of Mississippi, the federal government and a new lead plaintiff, Congressman Bennie Thompson, negotiated an agreement calling for the state to pay $503 million to settle the case. In 2002 the legislature committed to financing the agreement, and U.S. District Court Judge Neal Biggers approved it.

State Representative Charles Young, of Meridian, chairman of the Mississippi House Committee on Colleges and Universities, said the leadership at the time of the settlement "felt that we should quit playing with this issue and get on with it." Then-Governor Ronnie Musgrove, House Speaker Tim Ford and others "wanted to stabilize the state-not only in the financial world but also to try to finalize [the case] in the education world," Young said.

The settlement called for HBUs and traditionally white schools to have identical admissions standards (they had been lower for the HBUs). It also required funding for new academic programs for HBUs, to be spent over 17 years. There would also be money for new buildings and deferred maintenance, and an endowment would be created for the HBUs.

(Three Mississippi institutions are historically black-Alcorn State, in the southwestern part of the state; Jackson State, in the capital city; and Mississippi Valley State, in the Delta to the north. Five other public universities, including the University of Mississippi and Mississippi State, were traditionally white.)

However, the settlement did not please all parties.

Alvin Chambliss, one of the longtime lawyers in the case, continues to appeal the court decisions on behalf of many of the original plaintiffs, including Jake Ayers' widow, Lillie. (Ayers died in 1986.) Chambliss disagrees with almost every element of the settlement, not just the amount of money involved, which he considers far too little. "I just cannot sell people out," he said.

Chambliss bases the appeal on the contention that Mississippi still has not satisfied its obligation under Title VI to the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which bars race or sex discrimination at any higher education institution receiving federal funds. The relief that the settlement agreement provides is inadequate, he says, in part because it does not address the need for more professional education, such as law and pharmacy programs, at the historically black schools. Chambliss also is seeking more financial aid for black students and more flexibility for the HBUs to determine their own programs.

Until this appeal is exhausted, much of the settlement money will continue to be held up.

For example, Alcorn State is offering a master's degree in business administration at Natchez, one of its three campuses. This is an important part of Alcorn's efforts to upgrade its academic offerings, in part to attract more white students, as it must under the pending settlement. Workers there are putting the finishing touches on a 46,000-square-foot, $9 million business administration building, which is also part of the settlement. But there's a catch: Money to equip the new building is tied up in the appeal.

"A significant concern about the settlement is that it is a 'hold harmless' kind of agreement," said Christopher Brown of the United Negro College Fund. The state seems to be saying, "this is full repayment for what we owe," and if there are future needs due to deficiencies, there will not be an opportunity to get more money. This is "an ideal case of Catch-22," Brown added. "There are institutions that could use the money now; but if they take the money now, that may be all there is. That's the real conundrum."

Brown said a major problem is that the courts, policymakers and the public try to treat desegregation at the college level the way they did public school desegregation. "They have extrapolated the goals, aims and strategies (of the Supreme Court school desegregation decisions) to postsecondary education," he said.

With public schools, "people wanted equal education and required all races to be in the same place at the same time." But that doesn't necessarily work for higher education. "Colleges are very different," Brown said. "Students vote with their feet, based on the curriculum, the faculty, proximity to their homes, the football or basketball teams." Brown acknowledged that he does not know what approach should be taken but said, "the research bears out the conclusion that we are using the wrong strategy" to desegregate higher education.

Opponents of the Mississippi settlement take issue with many of its provisions, for example the uniform admissions standards. Previously, the historically white universities required a score of at least 15 on the American College Test (ACT), and the HBUs required only a 13 score. Now the test score requirements, which are combined with an applicant's grade point average to determine eligibility, are the same for all the schools.

The change supposedly means there is no discrimination, but Ivory Phillips, dean of Jackson State's College of Education, pointed out that the new cutoff score is a few points higher than the average score for black students. Since a vast majority of the high schools that black students attend in Mississippi do not offer adequate college preparatory courses, the new admissions standards leave those students at a great disadvantage, said Phillips, who opposes the settlement.

Jaquez Carr, Nikolay Gudovich and Trena Boyd (left to right) belong to a multicultural student organization at Alcorn State.
(Photo by Tom Roster, Black Star, for CrossTalk)
 
The settlement does include many benefits for the historically black campuses, including $246 million for new academic programs. For example, Jackson State is creating an engineering school. Mississippi Valley State will offer new master's degrees in business administration, computer science, bioinformatics (the management of genetic data) and educational leadership, as well as a new undergraduate degree in special education.

The expansion of Alcorn State's offerings in Vicksburg has enabled four women-Mary Peoples, Ruby Thomas, Brooke Hughes and Jule Peukert-to take education classes at night while working during the day. Peoples and Thomas are black; Hughes and Peukert are white. All four either are teachers or want to become teachers, but had found no affordable, convenient master's degree classes until Alcorn expanded its evening program at Vicksburg, 40 miles from the university's main campus in rural Lorman.

The legislature also has committed the state to spending $75 million on capital improvements at the HBUs. Jackson State is waiting for $20 million for its new engineering building, and Mississippi Valley has plans for a new building to house its bioinformatics program. "We also are in dire need of improvements in the library," said Valley's president, Lester Newman. "A library is very basic to the heart and soul of an institution, but that, too, will have to wait." The $5 million for library renovation is part of the pending settlement.

The three HBUs will share a $70 million publicly financed endowment created by the settlement agreement. But they can tap into that money only if they maintain at least ten percent "other-race," that is, non-black, enrollment for three consecutive years. To date, Alcorn State, with 10.6 percent other-race enrollment this year-up from 4.5 percent in 1997-is the only one of the three to meet that requirement and has done so for only one year. Non-black enrollment is 6.7 percent at Jackson State, three percent at Mississippi Valley State.

 
Biologist Alex Acholonu, faculty senate president at Alcorn State, complained that professors at historically black universities are paid less than their counterparts at traditionally white schools.
(Photo by Tom Roster, Black Star, for CrossTalk)
 
Top administrators at each of the three HBUs have voiced concern about the provisions in the settlement agreement on how to improve their universities. The settlement "creates haves and have-nots," said Malvin Williams, Alcorn's vice president for academic affairs. "Students in business can see some direct results of Ayers (the 1975 lawsuit) but it doesn't help my English faculty and the rest of the university. One of the things we wanted to do to attract other-race traditional students was to improve the core curriculum," Williams said. "[The settlement] really only touches pockets of students, not students across the campus. And as an academic administrator that's one of my biggest frustrations."

Alcorn President Clinton Bristow, Jr., thinks the engineering school that went to Jackson State should have come to his land-grant campus instead. He had hoped to establish an electro-mechanical engineering program that would enable graduates to enter the field of robotics. Otherwise, "we got virtually all that we wanted," Bristow said. That includes a new master's degree program in biotechnology at the Lorman campus, a master's in accounting at Natchez and a master's degree program for physician assistants. However, all three of these programs are waiting for the release of settlement dollars.

The new programs earmarked for Valley State "were not our first choice," said President Newman. His school wanted to offer degrees in allied health professions such as physical therapy and occupational therapy. "Health care and employment are the top concerns in the Delta and there's a critical need for these jobs."

At Jackson State, the School of Social Work now offers a Ph.D. in social work, the only doctoral program in this field in the state. This allows Jackson State to be a centerpiece in working with people affected by "the social issues in this state-infant mortality, child abuse and neglect, unemployment," said Ruth Williams, the school's associate dean.

The doctoral program has allowed the university to hire more professors, add to library resources and encourage more faculty to do research. "These things benefit students," Williams said. "If we hadn't had (these) funds, we would have done some of what we've done but not as much. It's almost like having a good cup of coffee in the morning-everyone was revitalized and excited about it."

Jackson State President Ronald Mason considers the Ayers case "a mixed blessing" for his university. "On the one hand, we have expanded our programs and enhanced our campus and had an impetus to start working on the neighborhood," he said. But the settlement "has also given us expensive programs," such as engineering, "probably more expensive to operate than we'll ever get the money for. It raises expectations for the institution, and those expectations only will be met if we can raise private funds. That's a challenge. The settlement hasn't given us programs that produce wealthy alumni-law and medicine. The programs at Jackson State are needed but they are not what you could call lucrative programs."

The federal district court vetoed proposals for law and pharmacy schools at Jackson State, saying there was no demonstrable need for them. But Jackson senior Armanthia Duncan, a political science major from Gulfport, would like to see more professional schools on her campus. She plans to go to law school and is aiming for Howard University, in Washington, D.C., because "there's no white institution that can give me a nurturing type of environment and prepare me to deal with the corporate community."

"We love where we are," said fellow political science major Mariama Gibbs, a Jackson State senior. "It's a wonderful school but we want it to be considered at the same level as the other schools in the state."

Of the three historically black universities, Alcorn State has had the most success recruiting white students, who accounted for 10.6 percent of its 3,309 students last year. About 40 percent of the 88 students enrolled in the MBA program on Alcorn's Natchez campus last fall were white.

A big plus for Alcorn is that the Russians are coming. The tennis coach recruited Mikhail Frolov in 1998. Frolov brought his girlfriend, and soon a number of other students arrived from Voronezh, a city in southwestern Russia. Today there are about 35, all on scholarships. To encourage interaction between the international and American students, a multicultural student organization meets once a week for discussions of everything from world affairs to community service.

One of the Russians, Nikolay Gudovich, a 19-year-old computer science student, finds the educational system different because "you choose what you want to take. In Russia, you get your schedule and it's compulsory." Nikolay's family was quite ready to help him come to Alcorn. It doesn't matter to them whether he is at a black school or a white school. "Russians don't know this segregation. It's not an issue there," Gudovich said.

Those opposing the settlement, like Alcorn's faculty senate president Alex Acholonu, call it "deficient." It's not so much the material aspects that bother him, said Acholonu, a biology professor, although he pointed out that faculty pay scales are not equitable between the HBUs and the formerly all-white institutions and that Alcorn receives much less financial support than the state's other land-grant institution, Mississippi State.

The average faculty salary at Alcorn is $44,652 a year; at Mississippi State, the other land-grant institution, it is $59,230. Faculty at Jackson State, an HBU, earn an average of $48,822, while their counterparts at the University of Mississippi average $58,627, according to state figures.

"The crux of the question is a change of policy, a change of attitude," said Acholonu. He does not think that has happened. When the state starts new programs, it puts them where white students can attend, he argued. "Where is the help? They are forcing us to beg on our knees to get white students. White and black students have always been able to attend Alcorn," he added. But now the whites are there on scholarships. "Where is the justice?"

But Clinton Bristow, Alcorn's president, disagrees. "That doesn't bother me," he said. "I'm in the education business. This is product competitiveness. If you want a consumer to buy your product, you advertise and you seek to have your brand accepted by consumers. Spending to diversify doesn't bother me."

Most HBU administrators might not be happy with the settlement but they want to get on with it. Alcorn's Malvin Williams said that when he is asked if the settlement is what he wants, "the answer is no, it's not what I want. But if I have to wait another five years to take a chance to get more of what I want, with no guarantee that would happen, I don't want to do that."

"[The delays] are causing us to get less money," said Alcorn President Bristow. "Each day I don't get that dollar, it diminishes in value. We can't build the biotechnology center, we can't get the faculty we need, we can't buy scientific equipment we need. We're looking at [the settlement] as really positioning us to be in a leadership role."

Having studied the case in detail, Albert Samuels, assistant professor of political science at Southern University, in Louisiana, agrees that there is a need to move on, although he admires the tenacity of Lillie Ayers, the other plaintiffs and Alvin Chambliss, their lawyer. Samuels, author of "Is Separate Unequal? Black Colleges and the Challenge to Desegregation," sees real problems with the settlement but does not think continued litigation is going to work, given the current political and legal climate-not just in Mississippi but nationally.

Nor is he sure about the legislative priorities of Mississippi's new Republican governor, Haley Barbour. "Those things can change," Samuels said. "Every state in the union is in a fiscal crunch. It would be very easy for Mississippi to say, 'look, we can't do this right now,' with rising health care costs and other issues. In this environment of shifting priorities, will the legislature live up to its commitments? That's where I think the efforts should be directed-to make them at least live up to these commitments, at a minimum. Then they can fight another day."


Kay Mills, a former Los Angeles Times editorial writer, is the author of "Changing Channels: The Civil Rights Case that Transformed Television" (University Press of Mississippi, 2004).

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