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In Fear of Mergers: Looking to the Future of HBCUs

The EvoLLLution | In Fear of Mergers: Looking to the Future of HBCUs
It’s critical for HBCU leaders to think seriously about how they can adapt their institutions to ensure mergers do not become a last resort for long-term viability.

In November 2015, the state of Georgia approved the merger of historically Black Albany State University with historically white Darton State College. Most HBCU advocates and alumni are not happy about this merger because they fear the local and national ramifications of it for several important reasons.

First, people are concerned that even though the new institution, formed by the merger, will retain the Albany State University name and the HBCU’s president, it may lose the ethos of what makes it an HBCU as more white students attend. It’s important to note that White students have been attending HBCUs since their beginnings and that currently 13 percent of students at HBCUs are white. However, we also know that when an HBCU becomes majority White, the ethos changes as well as the student organizations, make up of the administration and faculty, and sometimes the mission. Bluefield State and West Virginia State are examples of HBCUs that are majority White due to state demographic shifts and have lost much of the ethos of an HBCU. As Albany State steps into this merger, it must maintain the nurturing and supportive atmosphere that has empowered so many students, while finding ways to use these same approaches to support its white student population.

Second, people are concerned that the merger in Georgia will be a slippery slope, with more and more states attempting to merge their HBCUs—either with each other or with nearby white institutions. Several states have contemplated this strategy—including Mississippi, North Carolina and Maryland in the past—but alumni and advocate uproar has put a stop to these mergers. It’s important to remind people why we have public HBCUs, as many people conveniently forget. We have public HBCUs because the white power structures in Southern states refused to admit Black students to existing public colleges and universities that were supported in part by Black tax dollars. With their hand forced by the federal government (using funding as leverage to ensure that Black students received an education), the Southern states created separate and very unequal systems of higher education for Blacks. Today, the structures of power that created these systems want to rid the states of public HBCUs. Critics often cite duplication of programs, lack of resources to support the dual system and low performance rates as reasons to either eliminate or merge HBCUs but rarely acknowledge the historical racism that birthed these institutions or the unequal state financial support that HBCUs have received and continue to receive. If you have doubts, please review a new report from the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions that pinpoints the discrimination in funding that HBCUs and their students face.

Although there is hesitation among many parties with regard to mergers—with just cause, as Southern states have not demonstrated integrity on these matters—there might be some cases in which mergers could benefit and strengthen HBCUs. However, HBCUs will only benefit if the mergers retain the HBCU name, have leadership that understand the unique culture and contributions of HBCUs, and consciously maintain the ethos of the campus. A merger will not uphold the history, legacy and personality of an HBCU if it becomes mainstreamed and whitewashed. Yes, room needs to be made for other cultures and racial and ethnic groups as they attend newly merged institutions, but the history and culture of the HBCUs must be retained from the institution from which the merged institution sprung.

It is likely that more Southern states will propose mergers of HBCUs in the coming years as state resources become tighter. It would benefit HBCU leaders to be thinking ahead about this matter, preparing the best-case scenario for HBCUs in their states if mergers become inevitable. Unfortunately, when resources are tight and states are looking for ways to cut costs, they look at the institutions that they value the least, and given our understanding of American racism, HBCUs should be prepared.

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