James T.Minor 0000-00-00 00:00:00
My fi rst year as a Jackson State University student was in the wake of the 1992 landmark Fordice Supreme Court decision. Eighteen years ago, there was discussion of merging Mississippi’s public universities as a way to desegregate enrollments. With fi rm ideological resistance, the initiative dissolved. Recently, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour announced a proposal to merge Mississippi’s three historically Black universities (among other state agencies) as a way to address the state’s fi scal crisis. Again, Mississippi’s HBCU faithful rallied to beat back any idea that involved a merger, placing Barbour’s plan on a political respirator. This time around, however, the debate over mergers in Mississippi is playing out with an unexpected twist. In January, Jackson State University President Dr. Ronald Mason Jr. Privately circulated a PowerPoint presentation describing the dismal economic, education and social disparities among African-Americans in Mississippi. In the presentation, Mason suggests reclaiming Mississippi’s human potential can only be done by strengthening HBCUs. Although Mason has publicly denounced Barbour’s plan to merge HBCUs, his presentation suggests unifying Mississippi’s three HBCUs (Alcorn State, Jackson State, and Mississippi Valley State) into Jacobs State University. The presentation was leaked to the media, fueling speculation about Mason’s loyalty to HBCUs and drawing sharp criticism because his idea seems similar to a merger. Given the historical saga of public higher education in Mississippi, an HBCU president is probably the least likely source from which discussion of a merger is expected. Unspoken rules in the HBCU community order members to protect and defend institutions at all times. Dirty laundry is discussed internally. Any suggestion of closure or merger is considered blasphemous. Mason called a subsequent news conference to clarify that his presentation represents “an idea,” an invitation to discuss how the state’s HBCUs might move forward given the fi nancial, historical and political context in which they operate. Looking beyond the sensationalism of the story, I thought either Mason is not politically aware enough to know that such an idea is revolting or that there is some genius disguised in his method. I am persuaded to believe the latter is more likely true given politically naïve college presidents typically do not last 10 years as Mason has. It is possible Mason is using this opportunity to force a much-needed conversation within the HBCU community. If not this — then what? I cannot claim to know Mason’s true intentions, but one sentiment from his news conference rang clear— there is a need to have an action-provoking conversation about the contemporary strategy to move HBCUs from survival mode to sustainable excellence. Barbour’s proposal represents the on-going suggestion that HBCUs are negotiable rather than a necessary sector of public higher education. HBCU leaders must work to ensure their institutions are well positioned to thrive in a new era of higher education. Today, the role and place of HBCUs are not as obvious to those outside the HBCU community. Just over 48 percent of the roughly 26,000 Black students attending public four-year institutions in Mississippi attend predominately White institutions, according to the Mississippi Board of Trustees of State Institutions of Higher Learning Fall 2008 Enrollment Fact Book. High school students I mentor do not intrinsically understand the value of attending an HBCU. And, neither the public nor the legislature has warmed up to the idea of adequately supporting HBCUs. This is a reality during a time when education disparities in the country between Blacks and Whites are unyielding and a college education is essential for economic and social mobility. Perhaps, just maybe, this is the reality Mason feels a desperate need to discuss among HBCU leaders. I want to consider Mason’s episode as a passive-aggressive attempt to force action. I am an unwavering supporter of HBCUs because I have experienced fi rsthand their ability to take a student who might not otherwise attend college and transform them into a professor. I do not believe mergers are a desirable solution to challenges HBCUs face. However, HBCU leaders must reposition and redefi ne their institutions in a way that honors their history and charts a discernable plan for development given the present realities. If the HBCU community is not particularly adept at dictating to the public their contemporary relevance and contribution to higher education, it leaves space for external constituents to attempt it for them. — Dr. James T. Minor is an assistant professor of higher education policy at Michigan State University.
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