The need to save Black colleges, not always apparent, but always necessary

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Dr. Ivory Phillips

On August 14, 2021, Alvin Chambliss led a march and rally to “Save Black Colleges.” There was a bit of disappointment because the crowd was relatively small. There was fear that the size of the crowd would be seen as a reflection of the interest in the issue.

Leading up to the event, one individual asked was there anything in the news which suggested that there was a serious effort afoot to get rid of any Black colleges, especially in Mississippi. While the answer to that question may be “no,” there are actions beyond the obvious that are the real problem.

Reading the minutes and the agenda of the Board of Trustees of State Institutions of Higher Learning (the College Board), as this writer does every month, one can come to understand the nature of the threat. He/she can understand the cry for saving Black colleges.

Month after month, there are ten to fifteen times as many items relative to bonds, contracts, building projects, and other such matters that relate to the University of Mississippi, Mississippi State University, and the University of Southern Mississippi as to the three historically Black universities. If things continue at that pace, it is easy to see how the Black universities can become dwarfed into relative insignificance. Yes, this is gradually happening in plain sight every month.

Secondly, each year, as annual budgets are distributed, one can see that the average faculty salaries at the three comprehensive universities, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, and Southern Miss, hover at $8,000 to $10,000 above those at the historically Black universities, regardless of rank and years of service. The discrepancies make no sense when it is realized that a freshman English teacher is teaching English to freshmen whether it is at Delta State, Ole Miss, Mississippi University for Women, Alcorn, or elsewhere. A teacher who directs a thesis or dissertation is directing that graduate work whether it is at Jackson State, Mississippi State, Southern Miss, or elsewhere. There should be equal pay for equal work. Furthermore, once teachers retire, those who have spent their time at one of the three historically Black universities will be far behind a colleague from one of the comprehensive universities in monthly pension, even though they worked the same number of years in the same system. The blame cannot be placed at the feet of the campus presidents because they can award salaries only from the funds which they are allocated. It is a problem of the system, which is headed by the college board. Under conditions such as these, one can expect many more gifted teachers to head for the higher paying positions. The condition is compounded by the fact that, at the larger universities, teachers generally have lighter work-loads, thereby reducing burn-out and enhancing their ability to specialize in what they teach. All of these factors make it difficult for Black colleges to compete. They all generate false impressions.

Thirdly, each year the universities prepare legislative priorities lists. These are wish lists that they hope to get funded above and beyond the regular Institutions of Higher Learning allocation. Each year finds the three comprehensive universities with much more extensive or comprehensive lists than the historically Black universities. This is not by chance. The board and board staff support, encourage, and/or discourage what ultimately goes to and is passed by the legislature. As this happens year after year, the Black universities fall further and further behind. Check the minutes and see that much of what gets on the Alcorn, Jackson State, and Mississippi Valley lists are almost bare necessities and cannot compare with what the comprehensives request and receive.

Fourthly, the board has the authority to authorize and terminate program offerings. Each year, there are and have been more programs authorized at Ole Miss, Mississippi State, and Southern Miss than at Alcorn, Mississippi Valley, or Jackson State. On the flip side of the coin, the Black universities have had more of their programs closed over the years. Sometimes programs previously at Black universities are awarded to the white universities. This, too, can contribute to the slow death of the Black universities.

Finally, although the finally is only for this article, not of the universe of factors that can be examined, there is the matter of the timeliness and the quality of buildings constructed on the campuses and the recourses available to the campus presidents when there are problems. For an example, it took more than 10 years to get the Dollye Robinson Liberal Arts Building from concept to completion; more than 12 years have passed since an annex to JSU’s College of Education was authorized. The C.F. Moore Building is experiencing its second closure in less than 30 years due to construction problems. Black universities must keep waiting and continue starting over while the white universities just keep expanding.

Again, these are things that can be observed month after month. None of the single items may be enough for alarm, but together they threaten the long-term viability of the Black universities. There appears to be no one who is looking out for the competitive, best interests of the Black universities.

It is in that light that the Mississippi Today article on the selection of the college board members is important. According to the article, many trustees literally “buy” their ways onto the board and then reflect their institutional preferences through their proposals and their votes. Those who have been around a while realize that such governance matters were a part of the original Ayers litigation and have surfaced as each governor was elected.

The college board members can be called the board of advocates of state institutions of higher learning. Since the board came into existence, there have been far too few advocates for the Black colleges. Over the last 49 years, there has been only one who was a Mississippi Valley State alumnus and only three Jackson State alumni. This means that the Black universities have been without clear, direct advocates. They only get what’s left over, or are just an after-thought. The few college board members who are or have been alumni of the Black universities are always woefully outnumbered, even if and when they step out of the role of being neutral or objective and try to promote or protect any of the Black colleges.

The bottom line then is that the Black universities are always at a tremendous disadvantage. Their continued existence always depends upon the welfare of the white universities and the wishes of their supporters. Black college supporters can take heed and do whatever is necessary to promote and preserve them or stand helplessly by and watch white supremacy slowly work its destructive will, destroying Black colleges.