The Louisiana Dilemma: The HBCU Problem and Modern Higher Education

LouisianaStateSealRGBLargeLouisiana doesn’t have enough money to finance the 30 public colleges and universities it divides among four systems for two-year and four-year institutions. Within a web of varying political agendas and economic belief systems, legislators hope to solve that issue with a potential $240 million higher education spending cut this year, with an eye towards reducing a $2 billion bill that will come due in 2017.

At the center of Louisiana’s campaign for efficiency are its public historically black colleges, which over the last ten years have seen budgets slashed, enrollment plummet, and hopes for sustainability all but dashed. Grambling State University and the Southern University System have exhibited all the signs of institutions on the verge of destruction thanks to years of disparate support and political meddling in leadership. The leverage they once held by way of racial politics, legal precedent and influence of alumni in legislature and communities at the first sign of danger, is slowly fading.

The state is broke enough, and racist enough to wipe these institutions off the map if the price is right – but not through outright closure or merging black campuses into white ones. Legislators are too smart and too patient to add educational disparities to public health, policing, and political representation as the growing list of top ten reasons why black lives matter least in Louisiana.

But what elected leaders will do is use statewide budget cuts and weak leadership appointments to speed up the demise of particularly fragile campuses. The faculty vote of no-confidence in Grambling President Willie Larkin is a sign of the school’s battle-tested immune system trying to rid itself of the kind of covert, political dealings that have wrought havoc on the school’s endowment and public profile. The resurfaced discussions about merger for Southern University at New Orleans and the University of New Orleans are a sign that a deal has been brokered, and only awaits the outcome of the ongoing special session to make official the beginning of the end for the Southern System at large.

So what if Louisiana HBCU executives took a more proactive approach to meeting political agendas while maintaining mission and service capacity to the state and its students? What if, instead of reacting to the will of elected officials who represent ideas outside of our communities, they seriously looked at Louisiana as a pilot for how black colleges can make it in America in 2016 and beyond?

What if there was a serious conversation about Grambling joining the Southern System? That may be heresy to many proud Tiger alumni and supporters, but every moment that Grambling remains in the University of Louisiana System, or any other predominantly white system of higher ed, is a moment spent at the mercy of plans and persuasion driven by influencers with no formal ties or allegiance to GSU. They may very well be blood rivals in sports and for public appropriations, but under one umbrella, Grambling and Southern can maintain some institutional and geographic identity while saving the state money.

Four years ago, Southern Supervisor Tony Clayton broached the idea and was mocked for it. Among his ideas for the consolidation was to support historically black nursing outreach in the northern and southern parts of the state. Four months ago, Grambling declared financial exigency for its nursing program and discontinued the undergraduate degree offering – a vital program that may be permanently lost to nearby Louisiana Tech.

Five years ago, a proposal to merge SUNO into UNO died on the floor of the Louisiana House of Representatives, after months of political and social upheaval from black stakeholders. Today, should the Southern System recommend to legislators that UNO, and possibly Delgado Community College, merge into SUNO as a cost-savings, culture empowering consolidation?

Officials in Georgia deviated from history and race-based economics with its merger of predominantly white Darton State College into historically black Albany State University. Could New Orleans, ground zero for thousands of black bodies and generations of black poverty washed away in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, become the fertile ground for a progressive investment in equal opportunity through education?

Are there articulation agreements which can be forged between the Louisiana public HBCUs and private Xavier University of Louisiana and Dillard University? Certainly, the black colleges share many informal and some developed modes of cooperation, but are the ways in which the schools can create bachelor’s and master’s enrollment in key areas for Louisiana’s benefit, like criminal justice, public health and science, mass communication and agriculture? Anything that can entice students to come to or stay in Louisiana and eventually earn a degree program from a Louisiana public HBCU, is what all parties at Grambling and Southern may find valuable.

We must think differently about the intersections of public policy, finance, race and culture when it comes to maintaining HBCUs – not just in Louisiana, but nationwide. What we see in the news isn’t even at the heart of what really drives decisions about which schools will be chosen to thrive and those picked to die – vendor contracts, political favors and other backroom dealings are the stuff which really drives higher education in any state. When a member of the state’s legislative finance committee tells you that changes are coming, whether universities embrace them or not, its in the best interest of black colleges to be proactive about their fate and responsive to the inevitable tide of political will.

Louisiana has always been one of the model states for HBCU survival in the face of incredible political and racial opposition. Its time for Southern and Grambling to move further to the front of the national conversation on HBCU value, and to offer HBCUs nationwide a blueprint for successful sustainability.

8 comments
  1. With so few LA HBCU students able to qualify for the TOP scholarship things are looking pretty dire for HBCUs there. The better off black students either go to in state PWIs or schools out of state. Leaving the worse off at HBCUs where they struggle to graduate because of poor academic preparation and finances.

    I’m not sure a consolidation changes those factors but it might stave off collapse for a few more years.

      1. Links don’t come up here but if you google, ” Universities founded to offer minorities an escape from poverty struggling to fulfill their mission in Louisiana”. I got it from an article in the Advocate.

        Students across town at predominantly white LSU are coping with similar increases in tuition and fees, but more than half of them receive merit-based scholarships from the state’s Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, shielding both students and the institution they attend from the worst of the budget cuts. At Southern and the state’s other predominantly black schools, only a tiny fraction of students qualify for TOPS scholarships.

  2. Consolidation does nothing, it is another attempt by the white republican powers that be in the state to shut down the public HBCUs why can’t you uncle toms in the LA legislature see that. REALLY!!! All the programs from TOPs to the GRAD ACT where not intended to benefit HBCUs come on man!!!

    1. Actually that’s incorrect, TOPS was founded by a white man that overcame poverty to become very wealthy. He started the program in low income schools in New Orleans, which are overwhelmingly black. The state took over in the 90s and compared to other similar programs in the South the standards are pretty low, so many black kids were able to take advantage of it.

      However due to Jindal’s disastrous handling of the budget the program is going bust so they want to raise standards. If nothing is done the minimum ACT score to qualify for TOPS will be set at 28, of course few blacks score that high.

      1. I agree that the initial intentions of Patrick Taylor, were probably good, but it has really turned into a middle class subsidy. Note the household incomes of recipients in the 2015 TOPS Report. That has saved the program. However, as it provided a cushion for middle class students and their families, it insulated them from the effects of Jindal cuts. Without it, I suspect that Jindal would have been forced to raise taxes and fees much earlier because his middle class supporters would have demanded it.

        1. The middle class pays taxes too, why shouldn’t they get some benefit? At the end of the day if a poor student achieve the benchmarks they can get the subsidy too. At any rate the program is being gutted due to Jindal’s fiscal mismanagement. The state can’t even entirely fund this semester’s scholarships so the schools have to make up the difference.

  3. My home state is pitiful and it’s embarrassing. The very same politicians who have financially gutted education are the same ones complaining about the brain drain while trying to lure big businesses to a state that lacks an adequate workforce. True, there is an obvious assault against HBCUs but these folks even stop short of saying get rid of every state college except LSU, UL-Lafayette, SLU, and the larger two-year colleges. The problem with Louisiana is anyone who makes progressive, creative moves designed to empower diverse groups of people (ethnically and/or socio-economically) gets demonized by the powers that be, and you never know from what race or what part of the state the attacks will come. This is why I tell people I escaped from Louisiana.

Comments are closed.

You May Also Like

Letter to the Editor: Does Grambling-Southern NFL Halftime Show Diminish HBCU Support for Colin Kaepernick?