Race and power in play as Mississippi plans to merge historically black colleges

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In November, Gov. Haley Barbour proposed merging Mississippi's three historically black universities, infuriating supporters of the institutions and black leaders in the state. But many weren't that surprised -- and they talked about the proposal as part of a larger pattern of the state's white establishment either ignoring or actively undercutting institutions on which black students rely....

But on Wednesday, The Jackson Clarion-Ledger revealed that the governor wasn't the only one who has been talking merger. Ronald Mason Jr., the president of Jackson State, has also been talking behind closed doors to legislative and other leaders about a plan to merge his institution, Alcorn State University and Mississippi Valley State University. While Mason's plan differs in some key respects from the governor's, the news that their own president was pushing merger shocked many at Jackson State....

Some experts on black colleges say that it's not surprising that supporters of the three universities under discussion for merger in Mississippi are dubious. Joy Williamson-Lott, associate professor of educational leadership and policy studies at the University of Washington, is the author of Radicalizing the Ebony Tower: Black Colleges and the Black Freedom Struggle in Mississippi (Teachers College Press). In a state where the political leaders for years tried "almost anything they could to weaken" black colleges, many will not trust any change, she said.

Williamson-Lott hasn't studied the current round of merger ideas, and she said that she realizes the financial issues outlined by Mason are very real. But she said that educators should challenge the idea that the cuts should come from the black colleges. "Why aren't the white colleges being looked at for merger or closure?" she asked. (While Mason's plan does not touch on the historically white institutions, the governor did propose merging Mississippi University for Women -- which is no longer just for women, its name notwithstanding -- into Mississippi State University, although many black college supporters have feared that their institutions might be merged without any shrinkage among the other universities.)

Marybeth Gasman, an associate professor of education at the University of Pennsylvania who has written extensively on the history of black colleges, had a similar reaction. She said that she would feel better about discussing a merger of black institutions if she saw more discussion of issues affecting the other institutions. Those issues might include mergers, their track records at recruiting and graduating black students, and questions about whether they should have their budgets cut more to minimize cuts to black colleges, which continue to pay a price for past discrimination.

She said that nothing was wrong though with Mason or others including black college mergers in the conversation as part of a broader analysis of how to educate the state's students, black and white. The problem with the discussion until now, she said, is that it was prompted by a governor without many black fans who was talking about saving money. "I think it's fine to talk about mergers, black colleges and white colleges, if you are talking about saving money and improving the education," she said. "But it's wrong to talk about black colleges if you don't also talk about white colleges. It doesn't seem morally right."

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