Racial merger stirs controversy

by Jim Longworth

Ever since a man of color became leader of the free world, discussions have ensued about the relevance of segregated groups, organizations and events.After all, if an African American has snagged the top job in the nation, doesn’t that signal the beginning of the end for discrimination and racial divide? Is a Miss Black America pageant still appropriate? Do we need the NAACP or the Black Congressional Caucus? What about black film festivals and Black History Month? The latter was created, in part, to balance the teachings of American history by making students aware of contributions by men and women of color. But just as having an African-American president validates those teachings, doesn’t it also make them moot? Don’t children now realize that anyone of any color can make a difference and succeed? Finally, there’s the debate over Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). Do they really serve a purpose in the age of Obama? More than that, can they survive? In what may prove to be this century’s first big battleground issue linking culture and economy, some lawmakers are proposing that black colleges struggling to make ends meet, should merge with nearby white colleges who are solvent.Not surprisingly, the first skirmish erupted in the deep South when Sen. Seth Harp of Georgia (whose state faces a $2-billion shortfall), proffered a plan to cut costs by consolidating some campuses.Under Harp’s plan, historically black Savannah State University would merge with Armstrong Atlantic State, a majority white school just down the road. For Harp, though, the idea of integrating two diverse campuses isn’t just about crunching numbers to make budget. He is also a reformer who is ashamed of how minorities were once treated in his state. A white Republican, Harp recently testified before a legislative hearing, saying, “The white schools were begun as segregation schools. It’s time Georgia closed that ugly chapter”.It’s not the first time that Peach State lawmakers had heard such a plea. Twenty-five years ago, Gov. Joe Frank Harris made a similar proposal in order to expedite court-ordered desegregation. His words fell on deaf ears. Today, Harp’s words are falling on irate ears.Democratic Georgia state Sen. Vincent Fort told the Atlanta Journal Constitution, “I think it’s a bad idea. Black schools serve a purpose of offering not only programs, but an atmosphere conducive to black students graduating. The challenge is not only getting African-American students in, but keeping them in”.United Negro College Fund CEO Michael Lomax added, the merger “is not a thoughtful or timely suggestion”. Students and alumni of HBCUs have also weighed in. A Savannah State University student told Time magazine’s Laura Fitzpatrick, “Heritage is one of the school’s biggest selling points”. But even his critics have notquestioned Sen. Harp’smotives. His is a noble, twofold attempt to bring people together,while putting the state back on sound financial footing. Of those twogoals, it is the latter which is most urgent. For example, the Associated Pressreports that donations for all universities are down this year, andonly three HBCUs (Spellman, Howard and Hampton) even show up in the top300 in terms of giving. Add to that, 62 percent of students at 83 HBCUsreceive Pell Grants.

Meanwhile, the lack of alumni financial support and a worsening economy are negatively impacting academics at black colleges. Spellmanjust phased out its Department of Education, and Morehouse recentlylaid off 25 adjunct professors, and one third of their part-timeinstructors. And so, the irony is that those who oppose theend of HBCUs, may actually hasten their demise by fighting economicallynecessary mergers. If the Georgiamodel should take hold and move northward, it could pose somechallenging problems for Triad area schools. UNCG and NC A&T havealready formed partnerships in areas of economic development andresearch, so a merger between those two campuses wouldn’t seem so farafield.

But what about Winston-Salem State University? Wake Forestis private and, therefore, not subject to the dictates of the UNCsystem in the event that mergers should ever be advocated. Does thatmean WSSU would have to partner with Forsyth Tech and form a hybriduniversity? The financial woes driving this controversy are notsomething we need to worry about right now, but the day may come whenstaying out of the red, might just mean rethinking black and white.