The Need for Closure
Mississippi HBCUs look for light at end of tunnel despite judge’s call for more other-race scholarships
JACKSON, Miss. — Officials at Mississippi’s historically Black universities are not overly concerned about a federal judge’s order to use 65 percent of their endowment trust fund income to provide scholarships to attract White students to their campuses. In a ruling made public on June 19, U.S. District Judge Neal Biggers Jr., who is overseeing the state’s 25-year-old college desegregation case, set out guidelines on spending the endowment money provided by the Legislature, mandating that 65 percent of the scholarship money go to White students.Instead, Black college officials worry that if the Ayers vs. Musgrove desegregation case is not settled soon, the gap in funding between the state’s majority institutions and its HBCUs will widen.“What is important to us is that the Ayers case be resolved this year,” says Dr. Clinton Bristow Jr., president of Alcorn State. “Each year that it is not resolved, we lose ground. The longer it takes to get a settlement, the more difficult it is to compete with other universities in the state.”The endowment was established in 1994, when Biggers ordered the state legislature to set up a trust fund of $5 million for Alcorn State and Jackson State universities. The lawmakers added Mississippi Valley State University to the mix, setting up another $5 million endowment for that institution.The endowment’s principle was to remain in state treasury accounts and the three institutions were instructed to use the interest — which was approximately $300,000 last year, according to HBCU officials — to increase the number of other-race students at the HBCUs. In March, Biggers criticized the handling of the endowment scholarships, saying that in one instance there were more student grants given out than there were other-race students attending the schools that approved the scholarships. Pam Smith, a spokeswoman for the state College Board, says higher education officials had wanted specific guidelines from Biggers on how the scholarships, which are in reality a recruitment tool to get more Whites on the historically Black campuses, were to be distributed. “There is no problem with what the judge is asking us to do,” Smith says.The HBCU officials agree.“According to our business manager, we are already pretty close to” doing what the judge wants, says Dr. Roy Hudson, vice president for administration at Mississippi Valley State. “We are putting almost 65 percent of our money into [other-race scholarships] anyway.”“At Alcorn State, we were using half of the money for other race and the other half for program enhancement,” Bristow says. “So this just shifts utilization of the money.”For Alcorn State, that shift amounts to approximately $50,000 more for other-race scholarships.Smith says the College Board had been trying to juggle funds among changes required by the college desegregation case in programs, students and facilities.“This puts an earmark on what goes to the students and what we can use to make sure there is progress on facility needs and programs needs. We didn’t have such clear direction before. Before we were just doing our best, what we thought was right,” she says. Biggers said that while 65 percent of scholarships must go to Whites, other non-African American students can be considered. He said priority also should be given to Mississippi residents, undergraduate students and full-time students. The judge said the minimum scholarships will be $250 a semester, or $500 a year. The maximum scholarship, he said, would cover all tuition, fees, room and board.HBCU officials point to the annual funding they get from the state legislature as the reason Biggers’ ruling will have little impact on their monetary decisions. Bristow says he anticipates “approval of $1.8 million from the legislature for Alcorn State this session. We will be able to use that money starting July 1.” And Hudson notes that last year, Mississippi Valley’s total state appropriations for 1999-2000 was upwards of $15 million with a total operating budget surpassing $31 million.“But that [other-race scholarship order] is just a miniscule of what this case is all about,” Bristow says. “The real issue is settling Ayers this year.”According to Bristow, Alcorn State and Mississippi Valley State cannot get money to improve their program offerings and infrastructure until the case is settled. And until there is money to improve programs and infrastructure, Bristow worries that the institutions will not be able to attract significant numbers of students of any race to their campuses. “This is a competitive environment for students,” he says. “I want the best and the brightest, just like everyone else wants the best and the brightest, so I’ve got to have the programs and the facilities to attract those students.” Additionally, Bristow is concerned that the majority institutions will be given more money by the state because they will be able to attract more students — and state funding formulas are closely tied to the number of students attending those institutions. On top of that, he worries that those institutions will get even more money “as a bonus for diversifying” — an area his school will fall short in without settlement funds. Jackson State is not in the same boat as the other two HBCUs, Bristow says, because in 1995, that institution was given the funds to improve its program offerings and infrastructure.The college desegregation case originated in 1975 when the late Jake Ayers Sr. of Glen Allan sued the state, accusing Mississippi of neglecting its Black universities for decades. Plaintiffs in the case have demanded that the state put more money into the historically Black institutions to end discrimination in educational programs. Last month, Gov. Ronnie Musgrove opened settlement discussions among the plaintiffs, the College Board and the state. More meetings are planned. “As a final solution, we’re hoping that there will be a general enhancement of the state’s historically Black institutions,” Hudson says.
— The Associated Press contributed to this story.
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