In Georgia there is growing concern over the future of historically Black Albany State University due to a proposal that is being floated in the Georgia legislature to merge the campus with predominantly white Darton College. The move to merge Albany State, a 103 year old institution, is provoking concern and outrage from students, alumni and the Black community in general; that its historical mission will be diluted.
The nation’s historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU’s) are vestiges of the post-Civil War era and Jim Crow, as a dual system of higher education was created to enforce segregation. Through the 19th century and most of the 20th, these institutions accounted for the overwhelming number of Blacks who earned undergraduate degrees in the nation and was responsible for the emergence of a Black middle class. Names like Howard, Hampton, Fisk, Morgan, Tuskegee, Cheney and Lincoln, to name a few, became synonymous with Black achievement and came to represent the Black community’s path to opportunity. Like its fellow Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU’s) in mostly southern states, Albany State University has a unique history in Georgia of providing quality instruction and cultural enrichment.
Private and public Black colleges have faced innumerable challenges through the years. Privately held institutions such as Morehouse College in Atlanta and Hampton University have had to compete for private donations against well endowed white colleges while also relying heavily on the United Negro College Fund (UNCF) for support of its students and programs. Hampton, under the leadership of President William Harvey, has been successfully in gaining support from corporate donors while Spelman College, the all women “sister” institution of Morehouse, attracted national attention years go when it received a substantial gift from entertainer Bill Cosby and his wife Camille. Howard University has a unique position as a federally funded institution with an annual appropriation in the federal budget. However, these institutions are the exception. For other private Black colleges, particularly those run by Christian denominations such as the African Methodist Episcopal Church (A.M.E.) and the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (A.M.E.Z.), it has been a greater uphill climb to maintain and increase enrollments, improve campus physical plants and provide a competitive curriculum that keeps the institutions a viable option for students.
For public Black colleges it is a challenge of a different sort. These colleges and universities were created by states who denied Black students access to the public state universities, and they were purposely underfunded by states as an act of disdain for Black students. Perhaps the most famous example of this was Thurgood Marshall’s rejection from the University of Maryland Law School in his native state and his enrollment in Howard’s program. Decades later Marshall returned the favor by rejected the University of Maryland’s naming of its downtown Baltimore law library after him. Despite states’ attempts to starve these institutions, public Black colleges produced a generation of Black leadership – doctors, lawyers, teachers, professors, elected officials – who in turn helped dismantle Jim Crow. It is a story of triumph that has yet to fully be told.
Historically public Black colleges, such as Albany State, often faced hostile state legislatures and been repeatedly shortchanged in funding for campus improvements, curriculum enhancement, and denied the opportunity to offer new courses or graduate degree programs. In some states the disparity is evident as predominantly white institutions in close proximity to a Black college have flourished, while the HBCU has received scant support from state lawmakers. As predominantly white universities began accepting Black students in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s many Black colleges found it difficult to compete with their better funded and resourced white peers and soon enrollments began to decline. In the last decade, though, many of these schools have had a resurgence as a new generation of Black students has been attracted to Black colleges due to their affordability and the cultural connection. And some campuses, such as Morgan State University in Baltimore, have undergone significant physical plant improvements as a generation of Black elected officials in state legislatures have supported appropriations for these schools.
Black colleges are now faced with a double-whammy. The current economic climate is forcing states to seek savings in whatever way they can. If programs are duplicative at state colleges and savings can be realized by merging programs, and ultimately schools, other Black colleges will face the same challenge Albany State is now confronting. In this economic climate states cannot afford duplication of services or institutions with declining or stagnant enrollments in a geographical area served by another, more robust college, or fund two institutions that align but serve two distinct populations: one Black and one white. In many ways, the success of some public Black colleges will also make them easy prey for merger proposals and it will be hard to argue against such maneuvers because it will be based upon the strength of some of the HBCU’s.
Similarly, the election of the first Black president may work against the survival of Black colleges as independent institutions. With much of the narrative around Barack Obama’s victory couched in “post-racial” rhetoric it remains to be seen if an Obama administration will see historically Black colleges and universities consistent with the new president’s post-civil rights vision. While previous presidents have not been HBCU alumni, the fact that the first Black president isn’t poses a different dilemma. Will the nation point to President-elect Obama, someone who has degrees from Columbia and Harvard universities, as proof that HBCU’s are no longer necessary? Will President-elect Obama support these institutions historical mission in the face of continued evidence that they play an important role in providing young Black women and men access to a college education? These are questions that will become more prominent in the face of this recession as some states will justify the merger of Black colleges with white state colleges as a budget austerity strategy and the Obama administration may have no choice but to echo support or appear playing the “race card” during an economic crisis.