Josh Goodman is a former staff writer for GOVERNING..E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Gov. Haley Barbour's proposal has more to do with the budget than race, but it's still part of the issue.
Now that American higher education has been racially integrated for decades, what's the role of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs)? That's the question that lingers in the background, as Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour recommends consolidating his state's three public HBCUs.
Barbour's proposal has more to do with the state budget than it does race. Like many other states, Mississippi is cutting hundreds of millions of dollars from its budget, due to the economic malaise. Barbour, a Republican, sees streamlining education administration in his state as one solution.
He's proposing reductions in the state's number of K-12 school districts. He's talking about merging the Mississippi University for Women (which has admitted men since 1982) with Mississippi State. And, most controversially, he wants to merge the state's two smaller HBCUs, Mississippi Valley State and Alcorn State, into its largest one: Jackson State.
Barbour's case is that the budget shortfall's size makes it essentially impossible to hold education harmless. His preference is to reduce administrators and take advantage of economies of scale rather than cut direct classroom spending. "You can't save without touching education," says Dan Turner, Barbour's spokesman. "The idea is consolidation is clearly better than closures." Some duplicative academic programs at the schools likely would be eliminated under the plan, but the three HBCU campuses would continue to operate.
Barbour's idea appears unlikely to gain traction in the Legislature. Some legislators question whether consolidation would save much money. They wonder why the governor is focusing on permanent changes in response to what they hope is only a temporary budgetary problem.
Questions of race aren't too far below the surface. Some legislators argue that black schools are being targeted unfairly. "If the governor really wanted to address the institutions of higher learning," says Mississippi Rep. Kelvin Buck, chairman of the Universities and Colleges Committee, "then he would have placed every university in the state on the table."
What the Mississippi debate hints at are questions about the purpose of HBCUs. Supporters note that many HBCUs provide access to college to students who might not otherwise be able to attend. They also graduate a sizable share of the nation's black doctors, engineers, scientists and teachers.
Nonetheless, reassessments of HBCUs are taking place beyond Mississippi. Some observers argue that a relic of segregation - and the separate white and black public colleges it spawned - is that Southern states simply have more institutions of higher education than they need.
But Marybeth Gasman, an expert on HBCUs at the University of Pennsylvania, urges caution in these sorts of reassessments. She notes that HBCUs include schools that are large and small, urban and rural, public and private, selective and not. The biggest mistake policymakers could make, she argues, is to treat them as though they're all the same.