Alumni and students of South Carolina State University have made good on their promise of bringing hell to the state for threatening closure against their institution. Last Friday, the Coalition for Equity and Excellence in South Carolina Higher Education filed a lawsuit against the state, alleging harm done by underfunding and the state willfully duplicating programs which once were unique to SCSU at other state institutions, which created in South Carolina a publicly funded ‘separate but equal’ system of higher education for black and white students.
It is a familiar refrain from the suit brought against the State of Maryland in 2006, which seven years later led to a federal judge ruling the state’s higher education policies and programmatic efforts unconstitutional and in violation of Supreme Court civil rights precedence.
The lawsuit threat will likely force SC legislature to back off of its closure plans, and to scurry in funding and building up SCSU before a judge forces the issue with potential transfer of programs, new buildings, or mergers into its flagship public HBCU.
In ten years, two groups of HBCU constituents have filed federal suits in the name of preserving historically black higher education. These suits are the offspring of landmark judicial action in Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee. Each of the previous legal efforts contributed towards the march for parity and equity between historically black and predominantly white institutions.
South Carolina State, with the latest efforts by state legislators to close the school, may have the best case of all for a major financial settlement or development agreement forced by a judge, or to be brokered in mediation.
But in order for South Carolina to be the hill upon which higher education discrimination nationwide dies, it will first require trustees, alumni, students and black legislators in the state to be on one accord with how to move forward.
It is understandable why many have questioned the allegiances of Elzey and the SCSU Board of Trustees as operatives in a larger political game to shut down the school. On the surface, it seems unconscionable for the president and board to have met on several occasions since the vote to close the school, without action for financial rightsizing, personnel realignment, or formal institutional response to the legislative threat.
But when an institution has been underfunded for so long and operates at a minimal level of support, it is not easy to simply rightsize without doing harm to programs and services offered to students. Cutting back faculty or programs creates instant violence to prospects of increasing enrollment, which will lead to certain death of the institution with or without political influence.
It is just as unconscionable for SCSU alumni leadership to proclaim the school ‘alive and well,’ knowing damn well that life support is the antithesis of living well.
The board and president may be suffering from sinister political loyalties, and the alumni may be suffering from a lack of authentic information and bewildering optimism about the school’s state of affairs. But both sides must be willing to put all information and personal agendas out on the table, or else, everyone loses. The alumni and students will lose their school, and the trustees will lose all credibility and favor from legislature, once the doors are locked for good.
Most of all, Orangeburg will lose its unquestioned economic engine. Hundreds will be out of jobs, millions will be sucked instantly out of the city’s commerce, and the city will dramatically decline.
But the president and board are not the priorities. The priority is galvanizing the legal and political muscle from all corners of South Carolina’s municipal and state infrastructures to solidly oppose the closure efforts. South Carolina, much like Maryland, is too racist and arrogant to accept that is cheaper to fund black colleges than to publicly lose a disgraceful, costly lawsuit over HBCU comparability.
Every HBCU community is a microcosm of the HBCU landscape at large. For generations, public HBCUs have quietly fought with state leadership nationwide to be seen and supported as mainstream members of the state higher ed community. In response, states have always treated them as peripheral members of that community; unwanted appendages that grabbed only the helpless and unprepared for the discriminate rare air of higher education, only to be harshly judged for the failure of retaining, graduating, and ensuring employment for that same student group.
But equitable funding is the only solution to reversing racist tones and labels used against black colleges. Several federal courts have made it undeniably clear - funding and supporting comparability and competitiveness among HBCUs and PWIs is the only way to establish for HBCUs an identity separate and apart from one of race and cultural separatism.
Wherever they are on the scale of resources, HBCUs must be made comparable to attract students regardless of race. They must be able to establish student-faculty ratios consistent with institutional caliber, to compete for state and federal contracts and grants, to appeal to alumni for support, and to offer unique programs of industrial benefit to the cities and states in which they are stationed. Tennessee State University is the best example of this kind of it investment, but even it has a long way to serve the state in the fullness of its capacity.
After all, Middle Tennessee State University, a PWI, operates just 30 miles from Tennessee State. The programmatic and enrollment impact of MTSU on Tennessee State is not dissimilar from the impact the University of Tennessee - Nashville once had on TSU.
If SCSU supporters can unite for a common cause, they will establish a new reality for state governments which firmly believe in segregated funding and education. Louisiana, Florida, Georgia and North Carolina - states which are all past ripe for federal discrimination lawsuits - will have an easier time making their case for judicial intervention. They will only need to copy the filings from South Carolina and Maryland’s coalitions, plug in their own numbers, and brace for the public fallout.
Now is the time for concerted, strategic operation from all SCSU stakeholders. Because they aren’t just working to save a campus; they are working to lay a foundation for all public black colleges across the country.