North Carolina Reveals Frightening National Crisis in HBCU Advocacy

In the span of a few short hours, three different players from the same team took several different shots in a dangerous game with the future of three public historically black campuses at stake.

This morning, the NAACP affirmed its stance in opposition to North Carolina’s Senate Bill 873, which seeks to cap tuition costs, offers short-term state subsidies for Elizabeth City State University, Fayetteville State University and Winston-Salem State University, but no structure for keeping the school open when students reject the notion of a $500-per-semester four-year degree opportunity.

In response, Fayetteville State Chancellor James Anderson released a statement offering his latest remarks on the potential of SB873 becoming a legal nightmare for public HBCUs in the state.

The “Access to Affordable Higher Education Act,” has been approved by two committees and is headed for consideration by the full Senate.  The overall goal of the legislation, which is to make higher education available to more North Carolinians by reducing costs, is fully consistent with FSU’s longstanding commitment to access and affordability. 

Despite the bill’s good intentions, the provision for $500 tuition per semester ($1000 per year) at five institutions, including FSU, will jeopardize many activities essential to our core mission (instruction and student services) without continuous state appropriations.  While current legislative leaders will provide state appropriations to offset this lost revenue, they cannot legally guarantee that future leaders will do the same.

Although, we know it not to be true, the reduction of tuition could create a perception that the quality of education provided by FSU is inferior to that of other institutions.  Creating such a perception may undermine our tremendous progress of the past eight years.  Should SB 873 become law, we will not allow it to jeopardize the FSU brand and will continue our efforts to ensure that the FSU brand remains strong.

I am pleased to report that we at FSU, President Spelling and her staff, and the Senate leadership have been in ongoing dialogue to address these issues. These discussions have been honest and encouraging.   Senate leaders have listened to our concerns and are open to our suggestions. I am pleased that the provision for considering university name changes has been removed from the bill.  The requirement for reduction of student fees – another source of funding for essential services – has also been revised. We are continuing this dialogue.

Thank you for the many expressions of good will and concern for FSU in response to the discussions of SB 873.  I promise to do all I can to make sure that the final version of this bill is beneficial for FSU.

Anderson, who in March was out in front advocating against legislative whispers that would eventually became SB873, again spoke publicly with political neutrality. He spoke firmly to the legislators who can influence his career and legacy without being politically offensive or emotionally misguided, while voicing the concerns of the alumni, students and stakeholders who look to him for transparency.

But hours later, Winston-Salem State University Chancellor Elwood Robinson hit publish on a Facebook post that sent waves of uncertainty and mistrust through Carolina’s HBCU community. The post, largely touting WSSU’s value to NC and its students, gave an optimistic, supportive tone to SB873. But the Ram Fam took particular issue with this gem:

There is no doubt that Senate Bill 873 will have a tremendous impact on our campus. In many ways, this bill is exciting because it opens the door to a college education for many deserving students. As Chancellor, my goal is to ensure we have the resources that allow us to continue to offer those students a high-quality education provided by student-centered faculty in a caring and supportive atmosphere.

There’s nothing ‘exciting’ about a bill that even non-higher ed observers can see as a swift guillotine to all three of the HBCUs named in the bill. There’s way more than “tremendous impact” at stake for these schools, given that the legislature proposing this bill is the same which two years ago tried to close Elizabeth City State, last month set back LGBTQIA relations about 50 years with HB2, and last week in the face of criticism from stakeholders, passed SB873 through education and budget committees.

But this isn’t just about Robinson or his buy in for a dangerous, anti-HBCU bill – this is about who and when we can speak for our own interests to legislature which doesn’t care about them beyond taxes and votes. We should expect that state employees would not speak out against their employers on matters above their pay grade.

But in truth, if our presidents and chancellors cannot speak out, who else can?

Can our black legislators speak out without fear of losing backing from certain benefactors and legislative partners? HBCU alumni and students will speak out, but can we build media interest without a few hundred people mad as hell outside of the state capital building, or without thousands of students who are out on summer break?

Black media like the Charlotte Post and the Afro-American Newspaper continues to do an excellent job of reporting on HBCU issues throughout the country, but do so without the investment of the same black colleges, black businesses and black readers which drive the economy of media through advertising and readership.

So the HBCU, the nation’s first and only nucleus of black political, social and economic autonomy, remains the property of rich, middle-aged white guys who make the laws, employ the executives who run the schools, who own the media from which HBCU alumni and students get their news, and who set the agenda for retaliation or punishment when any of these groups get out of line?

This is why Shaw University President Tashni Dubroy can move comfortably throughout the halls of legislation, engaging each legislator on the pros and cons of SB873 and its provisions to cut need-based scholarships for students statewide seeking to attend all kinds of schools.  This is why alumni and students from North Carolina Central University and North Carolina A&T State University can move in the varying pockets of protest against the bill, even though it stands to benefit their campuses with new scholarship appropriations, at least for the next year or two.

Dr. Dubroy understands, along with all North Carolina HBCU alumni moving with tremendous organizing force in the last week, that if we allow even one HBCU to be claimed by political maneuvering, the case to claim all HBCUs as racially divisive, socially obsolete, economically draining relics of higher education becomes that much easier nationwide.

All HBCUs, as they are in media narratives, and in the eyes of federal and state legislators trying to take them out, are the same. HBCUs are a costly mirage of white anxiety about the persistent racial stereotypes that boil today just as they did 150 years ago, and locally, our campuses are viewed to be little more than parcels of land and facilities which could be generating billions for anybody other than black students, faculty and staff.

We understand why some people like Elwood Robinson are willing to carry the water for legislators, and why people like James Anderson are experienced enough to avoid getting wet altogether. But how do unite our communities in such a way, that no one has to fear drowning at all?

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