More than 30 years after committing to end racial inequality in its systems of higher education, Oklahoma has renewed its efforts to underfund and marginalize Langston University, the state’s only historically black college. Yesterday, legislators in the Oklahoma Senate passed two bills authorizing Oklahoma State University to duplicate an existing undergraduate accounting program at Langston’s satellite campus in Tulsa, and effectively ending a law requiring Langston have a campus in the city.
The arrogance of the vote is not surprising given today’s divided political climate and strained economic outlook for education. However, there are few contemporary instances of unchecked discrimination against HBCUs by state governments. In a few weeks, a decision will be issued in a federal lawsuit against Maryland for duplicating programs and underfunding its four historically black colleges, and could net the institutions more than $2 billion in back funding from the state.
That decision will likely fall in line with federal decisions in cases like US vs Fordice, and Knight and Sims vs. Alabama, recent cases that have yielded millions for black colleges, but have not nearly closed the disparity gap between the public HBCUs in Mississippi and Alabama, and their predominantly white peer institutions.
The Langston bills, authored by Republican Senator Brian Crain, are viewed as a direct act of defiance against the state’s federal agreement with the Office of Civil Rights, which outlines Oklahoma’s need to encourage diversity in its higher education system by funding and developing competitive programs at Langston. Oklahoma is current in negotiations with OCR to figure out ways in which it will affordably comply with the federal directive, an order which the state has yet to meet since its signing in June 2009.
It will be pretty hard to comply with a federal mandate to support Langston when half of its legislature has moved to copy one of its signature programs in the region at its flagship PWI, and to effectively end Langston’s run in Tulsa after 33 years of being the first university in the state to annex into the city.
Langston fills a unique role in Oklahoma as a university that meets the academic and cultural development needs of African-American students from the state’s rural and metropolitan areas. It is a national resource in goat research, and a valued federal partner in agricultural development in the state and beyond.
Geographically and culturally, Langston is an outlier as the most western-situated black college campus in the United States, and like black colleges in West Virginia and Ohio, is often forgotten in the national discussion on black colleges. These bills are a hot topic in Tulsa, but have yet to reach the national discussion on discrimination against public HBCUs. Given the problems with legislative assaults on HBCUs in Louisiana, Mississippi, Maryland, Florida and Georgia, Oklahoma now appears fit for adding to the HBCU watch list against HBCU threats.
In two weeks, the Oklahoma House will decide the fate of LU’s Tulsa campus. Some close to leadership at Langston believe that awareness of undermining attempts against the program in Tulsa will be enough to stave off any effort to cut Langston out of the area. It is harder for state governments to outslick HBCUs, but every attempt must be met with pressure from all HBCU supporters and campuses, because the Oklahoma legislature is betting that most supporters nationwide aren’t even aware that there was an HBCU in Oklahoma to kick around in the first place.