HBCU Mergers: A Fight the Nation Can't Afford to Lose

After all, merging black colleges has been a popular talking point in the state in recent years, and will only be expedited after this race-neutral exercise in higher education efficiency management.
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Regents of the University System of Georgia recently approved a plan to merge Georgia State University with Georgia Perimeter College, a move that will create a campus of more than 30,000 students on campuses throughout downtown and suburban Atlanta, and will enhance the resources and mission of what will soon be the state's little brother to big brother University of Georgia.

If the regents can do it with two predominantly white institutions, it's only a matter of time before it happens with one or more historically black universities in Georgia. After all, merging black colleges has been a popular talking point in the state in recent years, and will only be expedited after this race-neutral exercise in higher education efficiency management.

Around the country, mergers are a hot topic for all kinds of schools, regardless of race and mission. They are presented by legislators as a way to save taxpayer money, strengthen research and educational opportunities, and to increase visibility in a hyper-competitive rush for student enrollment. But beneath the surface, it is part of a far more dangerous plan to divide the haves and have nots, from institutional and demographic perspectives.

What we all have missed, opponents and supporters of HBCUs alike, is that threats against HBCUs are threats against the fabric of America's future. If there are but a handful of colleges and universities able and willing to educate swelling populations of Blacks and Hispanics, reducing that handful will not make Ivy League and predominantly white colleges suddenly racially tolerant. It won't make underserved and poor communities of color disappear, and it won't raise their chances of improvement through stronger secondary schools, better health care, or increased jobs.

Reducing capacity at, or eliminating HBCUs will only expedite the growth of a healthy American apartheid, one that will be the full result of a nation that loves to claim diversity, but rarely does anything to advance the full measure of its possibility. Supporting black colleges enables black communities to create and thrive for themselves. HBCUs, by being the single largest hubs of education, employment, and community development in many of the cities where they are stationed, slow the tyranny of non-black power within their gates. With them, more black people are better trained and positioned to create and hold more jobs, buy more houses and cars, pay more taxes, and have more babies who will be, statistically, more likely to follow the lineage of professional success.

Without them, more predominantly black cities will be governed by predominantly white legislatures, patrolled by predominantly white police forces, funded by predominantly white-owned companies and industries, and culturally stunted by predominantly white ideology and fear. Ferguson, Mo. was a forecast of the violence and hatred brewing among so many cities and neighborhoods where limited opportunity clashes with racial animus on a daily basis.

This doomsday prospect is not a result all white people being racist, or all black people being apathetic; it's a result of just enough people on both sides of the ignorance coin doing enough to place black colleges in an awful predicament of fighting for students, fighting for more money, fighting off merger, and fighting against stereotypes on both sides.

There is a case to be made for HBCUs merging with two-year community colleges, but it only addresses one element of the critical challenges facing black colleges from angles of public support. From an operational standpoint, forcing a rush of enrollment to HBCUs would require upgrades in facilities, investments in infrastructure and staff, and adjustment in mission. The closest example to this approach is Tennessee State University, which as the most successful HBCU-PWI merger to date, still requires hefty investment from the state to reach its full potential as a research intensive university with a public mission rooted in genuine effort to reverse engineer the effects of generational racism and Jim Crow policy.

But even this kind of merger doesn't address the larger issue faced by many public HBCUs -- the matter of program duplication and mission infringement. States like Georgia, Florida, Louisiana and Maryland have suffered greatly from programs of interest originally offered at HBCUs being duplicated at PWIs. This effort, which has wasted trillions in taxpayer dollars and irreparably harmed HBCU enrollment and appeal, is among the most critical issues faced by black colleges today.

And when white legislators are able to pinpoint a similar program between black and white colleges, the discussions of merger or closure for the HBCU program are easier to make and publicly sell to voters and supporters.

Several HBCUs are likely to close or be merged into PWIs in the next 10 years, and many in the community know full well which campuses they are and that they can do nothing to stop these deaths which have been generations in the making. But to prevent it from happening to all black colleges, we must convince Republicans, Democrats, blacks, whites, old and young that the nation is safer, more prosperous and more dignified in the eyes of the world with HBCUs intact -- and not as institutions absorbed into PWIs.

Merger attempts are on the horizon for HBCUs, but we must be prepared to make the strong case for autonomy, and be prepared to fight for it until the very end.

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