There are many things to like about the possibility of Georgia having its own HBCU system with more control over its purse strings, academic offerings, and future growth.
Stakeholders from Albany State University, Fort Valley State University, and Savannah State University are largely in opposition to Senate Bill 278 — but those for and against the measure seem to be missing some obvious signs about what the bill actually says, and what it could actually do if more of us were paying attention instead of shouting.
First, it seems that alumni from all three schools have missed the fact that in spite of widespread unpopularity and negative media coverage, and several black lawmakers removing their names as sponsors of the bill, the bill is still alive in the Georgia Senate.
It is very unusual for black lawmakers, particularly in conservative states, to spend political capital on measures which in the public eye appear destined to fail. So constituents have to ask themselves why this bill has life when publicly, so many declared it to be dead on arrival?
The answer may be in the detail of the actual bill. Here are three key elements that should concern alumni from each of these schools.
Here’s the section which outlines who will run the proposed Georgia A&M University, scheduled to open in 2021.
The board shall be composed of 19 members as follows:
(1) Eleven members shall be appointed by the Governor;
(2) One member shall be appointed by the presiding officer of the Senate;
(3) One member shall be appointed by the Speaker of the House; and
(4) Two members shall be appointed by the local board of trustees of each institution of the university system.
What is the use of creating a new system for HBCUs if 67 percent of the votes belong to the governor and state legislature, and 33 percent belongs to the schools themselves? Reducing the prospective amount of legislative interference in HBCU affairs in the state from 100 percent to 67 percent doesn’t help when it comes to policy and appropriations. So why go through the trouble?
Here’s the section on how institutions will be managed or eliminated under the new board.
(a) The board is authorized to consolidate, suspend, or discontinue institutions; merge departments; inaugurate or discontinue courses; and abolish or add degrees.
(b) Whenever any such modifications, changes, consolidations, or suspensions are put into effect, the board is authorized to readjust budgets to the extent necessary by the reallocation of the moneys appropriated for the institutions affected.
(c) Where similarity in names among the several institutions gives rise to confusion, the board may rename them
At first glance, we could assume that this is just language taken from existing documentation on the University of Georgia System, and repackaged to suit the creation of a Georgia A&M University System. But why would a bill purporting to make the state’s three black colleges stronger as one unit, lead off a section discussing how it could be dissolved?
And why would that same system, which outlines later in the document how GAMU would be one system with three separate campuses, have to confront confusion about similarity in name? How much more distinct could GAMU – Albany, GAMU – Fort Valley, and GAMU – Savannah, be?
A MATTER OF STATE LAWS
Regardless of how Georgia lawmakers elect to vote, this whole idea could evaporate in an instant based upon this state constitutional clause.
This Act shall become effective on January 1, 2023, only if an amendment to the Constitution of Georgia is ratified at the November, 2020, general election repealing the exclusive authority of the board of regents to create new public colleges, junior colleges, and universities in the State of Georgia and providing that the General Assembly may do so by law. If such an amendment to the Constitution is not so ratified, this Act shall not become effective and shall stand repealed by operation of law on January 1, 2021.
Put simply, none of this goes down unless the state abolishes the University System of Georgia Board of Regents. It is not an impossible task — Tennessee State University, Morgan State University, Southern University and Florida A&M University all operate with independent boards reporting to larger state boards of regents.
The right bill consolidating three public HBCUs made vulnerable by policy, funding and legislative interference could be a powerful example for the country. This bill isn’t the right bill, and it is time for alumni to stop fighting it for the wrong reasons, and to start thinking about the right elements of a long-term future for black colleges in Georgia.