The Louisiana Dilemma: The HBCU Problem and Modern Higher Education

Louisiana 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.