Charlie Mitchell column

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Mitchell: Funding aside, historically black universities lose ground

Until 1962, state taxes paid by black Mississippians supported public universities to which they were denied admission based on their race.

Black students seeking higher education in their home state could go to a private college, such as Tougaloo or Rust, or to a state school reserved for them — Alcorn, Mississippi Valley or, as James Meredith did before enrolling under armed guard at Ole Miss, Jackson College.

It’s not surprising, then, that black Mississippians feel a strong connection to the three historically black colleges and universities. Though a federal judge has said it is illegal to treat them as such, the three HBCUs are seen as special enclaves, welcoming places for descendants of those long granted less-than-full rights of citizenship. Their leaders say all three serve a relevant, ongoing and crucial mission.

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But it turns out that Meredith not only broke a barrier 47 years ago, he started a trend.

State Rep. George Flaggs Jr., D-Vicksburg, says he’s not exactly sure how, but the time to address that trend has come.

Flaggs, by the way, is a graduate of the school where Meredith started his higher education, now Jackson State University. Flaggs’ son, however, graduated from Mississippi State, where he was an elected leader in student government.

That matches the trend. Specifically, there is a faster increase in the number of black students enrolling — and succeeding — at the formerly segregated universities than at the HBCUs. In 2006, more black students earned degrees at Mississippi State, the University of Southern Mississippi, Mississippi University for Women, Delta State University, the University of Mississippi and University Medical Center combined than at Jackson State, Alcorn and Mississippi Valley combined.

The difference wasn’t great — 2,046 degrees to 2,025 —  but there’s no denying a preference shift among black students who are college-bound after finishing high school.

Gov. Haley Barbour’s spending recommendations for the fiscal year starting July 1, 2010, were unveiled last week. He didn’t address the shift, but did cause an explosion of chatter. The reason is that Barbour proposed to merge administration — only — of the state’s eight comprehensive universities into five. Not a dorm would be closed, not a classroom shuttered. The governor guesses — and it is only a guess — that starting in 2012 the state could avoid spending $35 million of the approximately $400 million now allocated yearly to general university support.

Jackson State would become the parent of Alcorn State and Valley State. Mississippi State would become the parent of Mississippi University for Women. The savings would come from centralizing purchasing, course registration, bookkeeping and other overhead. Nobody’s talking about closing anything.

The reaction seems to be due to the belief — probably credible — that administrative consolidation is a step toward merger and the consequent loss of the distinct identities of MUW, Alcorn and Valley. No one is cheerleading the governor’s suggestion. Even Dr. Ronald Mason, president of Jackson State, which would gain clout, said he was opposed. “What is clear is that Mississippi needs historically black colleges because they are dedicated to serving the needs of the state’s most underserved,” Mason said.

The good news for Mason and other opponents is that the governor’s ideas — part of a $5.5 billion budget recommendation — carry the same force of law as, say, Barbour’s opinion about what Red Lobster should charge for a seafood platter. Legislators control the state’s purse.

Barbour says he’s being realistic in the face of 14 consecutive months when the state has not met revenue targets and 11 consecutive months in which revenue was less than the same month the year before. Too, he said his plan includes $370 million in federal stimulus money that won’t be available in 2011.

Austere times usually mean government grows less quickly. Actual contraction — as is likely for the next few years — is rare. The situation has Dr. Mark Keenum, president of Mississippi State, saying real state dollars for 2012 could be 23 percent below this year’s initial pledge.

Overall public university enrollment in Mississippi was a record 73,700 this fall. All universities, except Valley State and Delta State, posted gains.

Because Mississippi has eight universities, lawmakers have eight constituencies to deal with. Loyalty and tradition have trumped notions of increased efficiency in the past and likely will again. Even if enrollment were to nosedive in years to come, no lawmaker — including Flaggs — would want to go on record as voting to close any center for learning.

The trend, though, can’t be denied. James Meredith opened a door when he enrolled at Ole Miss. Today’s students have a choice. More are choosing the schools their grandparents couldn’t attend.

(Charlie Mitchell is executive editor of The Vicksburg Post. Write to him at Box 821668, Vicksburg, MS 39182, or e-mail