Black Colleges Slam Miss. Governor's Plan To Merge HBCUs

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour is being both applauded and scorned over his plan to downscale and merge five publicly-funded universities to addess a $700 million budget shortfall. But the proposal is being especially shunned by those who believe it unfairly puts Mississippi's minority students at a disadvantage. Three of the five schools included in Barbour's plan are historically black colleges — Alcorn State, Mississippi Valley State and Jackson State universities. George E. Ross, the outgoing president of Alcorn State, and Jackson State University president Ronald Mason, Jr., share their strong opposition to the merger and why their campus communities are fighting hard to block the governor's proposal.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

And now, a controversial plan to merge three historically black institutions of higher learning in Mississippi. That's one of the ideas proposed by Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour to reduce that state's deficit. As part of his budget plan for fiscal year 2011, the Republican governor proposed to merge Mississippi Valley State and Alcorn State universities with the larger Jackson State University. He also proposed to merge two historically white institutions, Mississippi University for Women would merge with the state's largest university, Mississippi State.

But the proposed merger of the three black schools seems to have hit a particular nerve. Critics say it would compromise access to higher education, especially for some of the students who need it most. We wanted to find out more, so we called Alcorn State University president George E. Ross and Jackson State University president Ronald Mason, Jr. And they're both with us now. Thank you so much for joining us.

Dr. GEORGE E. ROSS (President, Alcorn State University): Thank you, Michel, for having me.

Dr. RONALD MASON (President, Jackson State University): Sure, Michel.

MARTIN: So President Mason, I'm going to start with you because your institution is the largest. It would seem that you would benefit by having additional students, additional reach. Why do you oppose this merger?

Dr. MASON: Well, it's a couple of things. The truth is, we all educate the same students and the question is how to provide the best educational opportunity and quality for the students that we serve. This proposal, which is really just a proposal in the governor's budget, we have no idea what the legislature will do at the end of the process, but it's probably not possible politically to actually merge these universities.

So after the dust settles, the real question is - we're predicting 25 percent budget cuts across the board for all three of the schools. And since we don't have the wealth that the larger generally white schools have, it's going to be difficult for us to ride out these budget cuts without really cutting into the bone of the institutions. So the really question is not so much - at least in my mind, the merger issue but, you know, how do we get through these budget cuts and come out better at the end of the process or at least stay whole?

MARTIN: Well, I still don't understand why you're against it.

Dr. MASON: First of all, I think it's money-driven and there's no connection as I could tell between the money they expect to save and the proposal that they're making. And then second, you know, these are three very viable, strong institutions that serve different parts of the state. And, you know, we can talk about working together in order to produce a better educational product, but the notion of merging is first of all, politically unfeasible. And secondly, you know, not well thought out.

MARTIN: President Ross, what about you? I understand that there are very strong feelings about this in the Alcorn alumni community, in part because of the history of the institution. Tell us why you're opposed to the merger.

Dr. ROSS: Well Michel, you're right there are very strong feelings among the Alcornites. We're the second-oldest public university in the state of Mississippi. Alcorn also has the distinction of being the first public black land-grant institution in America.

As to the merger, we're three very different institutions and you can talk to anyone across higher education, to put those three different separate missions together is particularly complicated.

On the budget side, the budget that the governor is trying to balance according to his office is a $1.2 billion budget deficit in 2012. The proposed $35 million that we're supposed to save by merging our three institutions represents less than 3 percent of that amount. I have not seen the numbers, I've requested numbers from the governor's office, from our board office. I'm just really confused about how we got to those numbers, what they really mean, and I'd like to see them.

MARTIN: To that point, we invited Governor Barbour to participate in our conversation. They gave us a statement through his press secretary, Dan Turner, and this is what Mr. Turner had to say.

Mr. DAN TURNER (Press Secretary, Mississippi Governor's Office): The plan to merge Alcorn State, Mississippi Valley State into Jackson State and also to merge Mississippi University for Women into Mississippi State is part of an overall effort to reduce the budget gap that we face. In the next fiscal year we're looking at about $715 million. And the year after, we're projecting a budget gap of about 1.2 billion, so we can't just make that with short-term remedies.

Part of the savings you'll get from reducing the administration and there will be some other subsequent savings. But as the governor has said, merger beats being closed. You're talking a savings of millions of dollars over the long-term.

MARTIN: President Ross, what about that? He says merger beats being closed. He's saying that the institution could be in jeopardy if something doesn't happen. You just don't believe him?

Dr. ROSS: Michel, we were asked, and appropriately so, by the Higher Education Board here in Mississippi. Ourselves along with all the public institutions in Mississippi have been working towards budget reductions and efficiencies over the past several months and we continue to work towards that. Our concern and confusion is that we read about this basically in the newspaper along with everyone else. I fully understand the pressure on the governor, on the state legislators, but I'm just simply asking to see the numbers.

MARTIN: President Mason, now, do you think - and other people have suggested that they think that this is racially motivated. Do you?

Dr. MASON: Well, they're eight institutions in the state of Mississippi system and the four that were pegged for merger were the three black and the one, you know, school designated for women, which sort of sticks out like a sore thumb, you know, from a public perspective point of view. But I do know this, and that is that the money issues for the state are serious. And, you know, these budget cuts are going to change the face of education in Mississippi one way or the other.

The three historically black schools have been working together in any event to try to find ways to provide the best education for the students that we serve at the end of the process. But, you know, this idea of a forced merger that will save $35 million in a year just doesn't make a whole lot of sense. I think there's a lot of ways that we can come together and work together and still preserve the traditions and histories of the three institutions.

MARTIN: The history does loom large here. In fact, one of the factors here that people outside of the state may not know is that in 2002 the Mississippi legislature reached a settlement, which is known as the Ayers settlement, to provide more than half a billion dollars to the historically black universities over the next 17 years because of the long-running lawsuit that determined that the state had discriminated against these institutions in the funding process historically.

So the question I have is, would this merger violate the terms of that settlement? Has that been determined?

Dr. MASON: Yeah, I don't think that question has even been thoroughly explored yet. The settlement basically provides funding to the schools to, in theory, make up for, you know, past discrimination. The truth is that programs that they added, at least at Jackson State, in order to enhance the quality and prestige of Jackson State actually cost more to run than the money that the settlement has given us, so that this settlement has turned out to be as much of a challenge as anything else.

I don't see, though, that if the three schools are preserved in some form or even if they were combined in some form, I think that the money would still be there, but it never was enough money in the first place. And that's a whole nother conversation.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about the proposed merger of historically black institutions of higher learning in Mississippi. Governor Haley Barbour is proposing this merger in part to respond to a serious budget shortfall. And our guests are Jackson State University president Ronald Mason, Jr., and Alcorn State University president George E. Ross. Those institutions, along with Mississippi Valley State would be affected by the merger, along with two others - two historically white institutions.

But President Ross, I have to press you on the point of educationally, what do you think would be missing for the students in Mississippi who traditionally attend these institutions if these institutions were to merge? Particularly because he's not saying he's trying to close the campuses but he's saying he's trying to merge certain functions. So can you help us?

Dr. ROSS: Well, Michel, actually, I'm not quite sure. But as to the educational impact of Alcorn on southwest Mississippi, we're the university in southwest Mississippi and surrounded by approximately 20 counties, about one fourth of the counties in Mississippi. We represent the epicenter for education, for economic development in this part of the state. We are the largest employer in this part of the state. And the numbers in Mississippi and across the country indicate that dollars invested in higher education return back $1.33 here in Mississippi.

MARTIN: President Mason, what about you? As we mentioned, Jackson State is the largest of the three institutions we're talking about today and would retain its identity. What do you think would be compromised educationally if these -the merger were to go forward?

Dr. MASON: Well, a couple of things. One, understand that Jackson State is Mississippi's capital university, so we have the central part of the state that we serve. Alcorn is in southwest, which is really about an hour and a half away from Jackson. And then Mississippi Valley is in the Mississippi Delta and about two and a half hours away from Jackson. So, you know, if the idea is to keep all three campuses open and then provide an education at all three campuses, it's not clear to me how you're going to save a lot of money anyway.

But, you know, while these merger conversations are getting everybody's emotional attention, the truth is that these budget cuts that are coming down the pipe are pretty Draconian and very real. You know, the question of what's going to suffer is really not a question about the merger. It's really a question about how we deal with and survive these cuts without wealth to be able to ride out the process like some of our sister schools in Mississippi can.

MARTIN: I see what you're saying. President Ross, I'm going to ask for a final thought from you. You announced last week that you will be leaving Alcorn State to become president of Central Michigan University. You said that this has nothing to do with these discussions about the merger and that this move is desirable for you for other reasons.

But having said that, I have to ask a tough question, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich said - was famous for saying that the test of any institution or program should be: if you weren't already doing it, would you start? If Alcorn State did not already exist would it start?

Dr. ROSS: That would be an unequivocal yes. In our 138-year history and the contributions to this state and this country, support starting in 1871 was the right thing to do. If we started in 2009, that would be the right thing to do.

MARTIN: George E. Ross is the president of Alcorn State University. He joined us from his office there. Ronald Mason Jr. is the president of Jackson State University. He joined us from member station WJSU at the campus at Jackson State. Gentlemen, I thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Dr. MASON: Thank you.

Dr. ROSS: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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