Alabama Governor’s Attack on HBCUs Must Be Stopped

Black folks generally accept that we have to play by a different set of rules just to get by, but there comes a point where we have to warn the powers that be that we notice the blatant and the covert efforts to keep us marginalized. And sometimes, we have to show that we’re just not going to sit back and take it.

Alabama Governor Robert Bentley and his witch hunt tactics on public HBCUs in his state is not something we should sit back and take. It’s something that deserves massive public inquiry, lawsuits, boycotts, and whatever else we can throw at the power of his office and the ill-intent of his actions.

His intrusion in the firing and hiring of presidents at Alabama State University, with a forensic audit sandwiched in between the drama, has cost taxpayers in excess of $1 million and continues to jeopardize the school’s accreditation. But we had to eat that one, because ASU trustees and their propensity for good old fashioned, deep-fried corruption made any effort to target Bentley as a source of the controversy too difficult to flesh out among their misdeeds and big mouths. 

But now Bentley has set his sights on Alabama A&M, which today stands as the state’s largest historically black land-grant institution, and is in the midst of substantial growth over the last three years. Enrollment is up, a capital campaign with an original goal of $16 million has been surpassed, and a new goal of $22 million has been set in support of scholarships, athletic development, faculty support and technology upgrades.

Bentley and media outlets in the state would promote the narrative that leadership and accountability are at dangerous operating levels, if you believe his dogged pursuit of answers onaudit findings against the school about expenses, benefits and reported income – most of which were accounted for or paid back prior to the audit’s release.

But those minimal findings, none of which are unusual for a business with thousands of paying customers, hundreds of employees, and millions in state funds moving around on a weekly basis, have resulted in negative press for the school, an indictment for a campus executive, and a potential contract extension for AAMU President Andrew Hugine. Bentley opposed the extension on the record this week after hearing ‘rumors’ about the possibility of a new deal for Dr. Hugine, who was hired in 2009 and received a unanimous vote for a five-year extension in 2012.

Those rumors, according to some insiders in the Alabama political circle, are a result of the alliance between Bentley and AAMU Trustee James Montgomery. Montgomery, who is an Alabama A&M alumnus, is the latest HBCU board member to split allegiance between the school and the state’s political administration on matters of finance, ego and accountability, which at all times and in all ways, never benefits the university, and never quite reaps great reward for the individual sellout.

Even worse, Montgomery and Bentley are part of a small unit bringing big trouble for Alabama A&M, while Auburn University quietly deals with severe audit issues of its own. According to the Alabama Department of Examiners of Public Accounts, AU racked up more than $50,000 in illegal purchases and actions, with findings ranging from officials keeping personal livestock on university property, to making personal purchases on university credit cards and falsifying financial reports.

Of course, all is unfair in crime and punishment when it comes to black people and black institutions, but it doesn’t and shouldn’t dim the pursuit of equity. Bentley is playing unfairly with the integrity and future of public HBCUs in Alabama, and his games to stunt growth and grant favors by meddling will stand to harm students and the communities in which these schools serve.

If there is such a thing as justice, and too frequently there is none in publicly funded, historically black higher education, the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights will launch an investigation of Bentley, who by state constitutional law, also serves as the President of the AAMU Board of Trustees. Hopefully, such an inquiry would also spur an investigation from the Department of Justice to launch a probe into the political and economic disparities levied against public HBCUs in southern states.

Bentley may be empowered by law and loyalty to screw with HBCUs, but he and others shouldn’t think for a second that we can’t see it coming, or that we don’t know what the end game is for him, and legislators like him throughout the nation.

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