Ayers Case Provisions Not Included in Report From State Institutes ofHigher Learning By Earnest McBride
Ayers Case Provisions Not Included in Report From State Institutes of Higher Learning
By Earnest McBride
©2003. The Jackson Advocate, Jackson, Mississippi. Posted by permission.
Despite the enormity of the pending settlement in the continuing Ayers case against inequality for Afro Americans in Mississippi's institutions of higher education, representatives of the State Board of Institutes of Higher Learning (IHL)) have chosen to disregard any implications of that landmark lawsuit in their most recent report on the state's colleges and universities.
According to the report issued in July, the state's eight institutions of higher learning are on a downward spiral, facing increasing budget shortfalls and costly cutbacks in programs and staff in some essential positions.
The relationship between the state's higher education system and its economic well-being is both apparent and constant. Mississippi ranks at the bottom in per capita income. And it remains the last state to devise a workable plan for dismantling its racially segregated secondary and college-level schools.
Speaking on behalf of the Institutes of Higher Learning, Pamela Smith readily acknowledged a current lag in development on all of Mississippi's college campuses. She refused, however, to offer any insights into IHL's plans to compensate the historically black colleges for the additional financial losses they have to absorb, saying only, "these losses to the HBCUs are devastating."
Most observers agree, however, that unless the 28-year-old Ayers case reaches a final settlement after the November 3 appeal before the United States Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, the current confusion about the role and mission of Jackson State, Alcorn and Mississippi Valley State Universities will continue to be the operating norm. On the other hand, there exists some very sharp disagreement among the state's top education insiders about the future role of these predominantly black institutions in the context of Ayers versus Musgrove et al, the case that just won't die, thanks to the tenacity of the core plaintiffs.
JSU President Ronald Mason says that the central issue decided by the courts in the Ayers case was "the desegregation of the state's historically white institutions of higher learning." That is also the position taken by the majority of the 21-member IHL Board of Directors. "I am an employee of the IHL," Mason said with a slight chuckle. "And I'm not going to take a position adverse to theirs."
Elias Blake, the public policy adviser of the influential National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education (NAFEO) and a highly-respected voice in black education legal matters, says the overriding legal opinion is "equalization" rather than mere "desegregation" in the traditionally segregated Southern states.
"Mississippi's system of higher education has perpetuated inequality between black and white students and their respective communities," Blake says from his Washington, D. C. office. "The system refuses to address the issue of inequality. But that was the whole intent of the Supreme Court's opinions from Brown versus Board of Education to the present. Because Mississippi refuses to address the real issue, the education situation for blacks is getting worse rather than improving."
Many parts of the 2003 IHL status report have come into question by experts in the field of education. The assertion that "Mississippi is a leader in keeping its college freshmen at home," for example, was dismissed by Blake as meaningless when applied to black college freshmen.
"During the Fall 2000 semester, 93.4 percent of Mississippi freshmen chose to attend college in their home state," IHL's report states. "This exceeded the national (84.6 percent) and southeastern regional (87.8 percent) averages."
There have been some increases in freshman enrollment in Mississippi since NAFEO's 19999-2000 report, says Blake. But freshman enrollment at the historically black colleges has radically declined, he says.
"The state's figures are bogus figures," Blake says. "Current enrollment of freshmen in Mississippi's black colleges is at about half of what it was before the Ayers' settlement. And black enrollment in the overall system is one-third below where it was before.
Despite the widely touted "half-billion dollar" Ayers settlement, says Blake, the vital issues for black students, faculty and community interests have not been addressed. There is no remedy offered in Ayers or any other state proposal to "reverse the erosion of half the black freshman enrollment" and to equalize the number of graduate and professional fields at the HBCUs that were denied under official segregation.
"The remedy we have been after for 400 years is one to reduce inequality in the colleges and universities," Blake says. "That issue is one that the Ayers plaintiffs and faculty in the three black colleges will place before the 5th Circuit Court, I'm almost certain. Can that settlement stand while the admissions policies and mission limitations in the HBCUs perpetuate the black-white inequality in degrees and professional training provided at these colleges?
"The settlement added a number of graduate and undergraduate fields in an attempt to make the black campuses attractive to white students. But that is to point out the extent of inequality black students have had to face since the founding of the colleges. The state has failed to provide equality to Alcorn for 131 years, to JSU for 63 years and to MVSU for 51 years.
"Those fields of study held back from the three HBCUs are in violation of the U. S. Constitution and the equal protection clause. And all the other fields that are still not included, especially at MVSU, are in violation of the equal protection clause."
Until the Brown versus Board of Education Supreme Court rulings of 1954 and 1955, Blake says, there was no dispute that the states were obligated to provide blacks with equal opportunity in segregated schools. But that had never been done. But after Brown, Blake points out, "the question of inequality was replaced by the question of segregation. But is it not still a violation of the Constitution for the state of Mississippi to deny black students at the undergraduate level the fields of study that they need as the basis of equal opportunity? Racial composition of the three campuses should have no bearing on whether black students in Mississippi have the same educational opportunity and facilities as the students on the five majority-white campuses."
Jackson State was promised a new role as the state's "comprehensive urban university," says former retired former State Senator Henry Kirksey, still one of the State's leading gadflies for improved black higher education. "But when I asked IHL to provide me with their detailed proposal to make JSU a comprehensive university, I got information for everything but what they meant by "comprehensive university."
Like Kirksey, Attorney Alvin O. Chambliss, Jr., the attorney scheduled to present the appeal before the Fifth Circuit Court, holds a skeptical, if not outright cynical, view of the IHL, his main opponent lurking in the shadows of the Ayers legal battle.
"Jackson State has not been brought up to the same level of comprehensive education as Ole Miss and Mississippi State," Chambliss says. "That's what we asked for. But it has been denied the Ayers plaintiffs. At best, JSU can be classified as a Master's comprehensive/ Doctoral II institution. It does offer a few doctorate degrees. But you can't list JSU as a comprehensive university because to be a comprehensive school at the doctoral level, you have to be classified as a Research I or a Research II institution. Jackson State isn't even close to being a Research II school. We argued for the comprehensive university status for Jackson State, but they've changed the definition on us. So what we are asking the courts for is the same classification for JSU that MSU has."
Chambliss favors changing the composition of the IHL Board and wants the state to include alumni from the three black colleges on the Board.
"IHL has been mostly a job factory for the state's top politicians who find themselves suddenly out of office or out of work," Chambliss says. "It is probably the only department in state government that is able to hide money and funnel it off to whomever it wants. It's time for a change on the board. Under the current structure, we have people being appointed from phantom Congressional districts and nonexistent legislative districts. It has never been a reliable source of information about what's happening in higher education in this state."
It is a curious coincidence that the current structure of the Institutes of Higher Learning may be voted out of existence on November 4, the day after the scheduled federal court hearing of the Ayers' appeal to be presented by Oxford-based Chambliss. The November general election ballot contains a proposed constitutional amendment to reassign the 12 members to the three Supreme Court districts, choosing four from each district, initially with staggered terms to last up to nine years each, as opposed to the present 12-year terms.
Chambliss has been the attorney most closely identified with the Ayers case for 25 years, although he was fired by the North Central Mississippi Legal Services for refusing to push the widow of the late Jake Ayers--the original plaintiff--- and the other dissatisfied litigants to accept a highly-questionable deal with the state that would absolve Mississippi of its past racist practices in education.
After Chambliss was pushed out of the case in, federal Judge Neal Biggers allowed Congressman Bennie Thompson---also one of the early plaintiffs while a college student in 1967--- to enter the case as the lead plaintiff in the place of the deceased Jake Ayers. Jackson Attorney Isaac Byrd replaced Chambliss as lead attorney.
The black institutions purportedly have a lump sum of $503 million in Ayers settlement money now being held in trust by the courts, pending the outcome of the November 3 appeal. The half-billion dollars is the amount the state of Mississippi has promised to the black colleges and universities as its final settlement to black students and institutions for nearly two centuries of rigid racial segregation and the accompanying neglect of black demands and needs in the real world.
"The state's institutions of higher learning have had over $71 million taken away from them since fiscal year 2000," Smith says. "Our estimates don't include any of the Ayers considerations because we don't have all the (Ayers) money. The new losses, along with the money being held up because of the Ayers appeal are devastating to our historically black campuses."
In the view of JSU President Ronald Mason, the key issue of the Ayers complaint "desegregation of Mississippi's white colleges and universities---has been settled. It was about desegregation, not about bringing a law school or a school of medicine to Jackson State, Mason says. JSU's nascent Engineering program is a welcome addition to the campus curriculum, nevertheless, he says.
For those favoring the upcoming appeal, the Ayers issue was about ending inequality in the state's eight higher education centers, guaranteeing Mississippi's black students the same curriculum, facilities and career opportunities as white students
Without an extensive makeover of the Ayers settlement in its current form, the historically black institutions may be doomed to continue to play out their traditional functions as repositories of aspiring black scholars unwelcome and unwanted in the state's white institutions.
Without a court mandate for equalization of curriculum, facilities and educational opportunity in general as called for in the Ayers appeal, the traditionally black schools and their graduates will be doomed to continue to operate at the margins of the state's university system and society at large---nearly totally separate, but certainly unequal.