OPINION: Who are the directors and overseers of Black education?

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For as long as the writer can recall, there has been talk about the importance of education, especially in terms of the freedom and prosperity of Black people. Scores of major lawsuits have been filed, hundreds of schools have been built, and thousands of books have been written aimed at improving the state of education among Black people in America. Ironically enough, one of the most widely read books on the subject is “The Mis-Education of the Negro” by Carter G. Woodson.

We, therefore, begin on that note because much that is not right, when it comes to the education of Black people, is underscored in Woodson’s book. As a matter of fact, Woodson inspired us to formulate the question, “Who are the directors/overseers of Black education?” It was his contention that as long as someone else controls the education of Black people, they cannot and will not be able to develop as they can and need to develop in order to be full-fledged individuals/citizens.

Because the problem is complex, we will simply say that today we will begin with Mississippi’s system of higher education and indicate that in the near future, we will look at the system of public education and the role of the state’s executive and legislature in education, with the same thought in mind – who controls Black education? We, in each case, agree with Woodson, DuBois, and several other Black scholars on the subject, that is, that the Black community has to assert more control, the major control, over its own education.

 In Mississippi, the system of higher education is directed and overseen by the Board of Trustees of State Institutions of Higher Learning (the board or college board). The board consists of 12 individuals appointed by the governor, for a period of nine years. It is the body that selects and appoints the university presidents, allocates funds to each of the eight public institutions, approves the curricula and programs at each university, approves all building projects and contracts for each campus, and in virtually every other way directs and oversees the system of public higher education.

The two biggest problems with this arrangement are that the public has nothing to do with who the governor appoints to the board and that there is no one to whom the board reports or is responsible to. In each way, it is undemocratic and often in opposition to the best of Black people. It is on those two conditions that we comment in this article.

If and when one considers that historically the state has been steeped in racism, he/she can understand how for years, the board has: micro-managed who is hired to teach as well as how they were muzzled or fired for being too progressive; denied certain programs to certain institutions, while also forbidding the use of certain materials, even in the approved programs; decided on the type of presidents hired and restrictions placed on them as they operate; and funded the institutions in such ways that they are able to attract only certain numbers and types of students and teachers. To put it another way, the handicaps faced by Alcorn, JSU, and Valley were not the products of coincidences or happenstance. They are the ways in which the overseers of Black education have directed rather than the ways most beneficial to Black people. 

The board that can control an institution’s personnel and the curriculum is for sure the one who manages, and is thus responsible for whatever degree of mis-education that occurs. That truth is magnified by the fact that the same board is beyond the reach of the people affected, in this case, Black parents, Black students, and Black tax-payers. If that truth needed any additional assurance, it is further provided by the “insulated” manner in which the board operates. Nobody can raise questions before nor after the board acts; nobody has an opportunity to offer any suggestions at any point that will make a difference.

Based upon those realities, the writer suggests, recommends, pleads for, and challenges Black people and those who are genuinely concerned about Black education to make it a standard practice to attend the meetings of the college board the third Thursday of each month and to raise questions about things that are on the agenda; make it a strategic practice to call for changes in how the board is constituted and how it operates, including making full public reports after its meetings and the solicitation of public in-put; and dutifully encourage other people and groups to become “actively concerned” about changing the system so that the mis-education of Black people at the university level comes to a screeching halt.

We have talked long enough about the problem. It is time to match our rhetoric with significant actions. 

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OPINION: Who are the directors and overseers of Black education?

By Dr. Ivory Phillips
May 28, 2024