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North Carolina measure would have names of 3 HBCUs changed

Was N.C. college bill a ploy to kill off universities?

The on-again, off-again threat to North Carolina’s public historically black colleges and universities appears to have subsided yet again.

But if you think this saga is over, you haven’t been paying attention.

Just to get you up to speed:

Two months ago, North Carolina Senate Bill 873 proposed lowering the in-state tuition to $500 per semester — $2,500 for out-of-state students — at three North Carolina public universities, a historically Native American university and a predominantly white university.

The bill also proposed funding revenue gaps caused by the tuition cuts with a $70 million payout in the 2018-19 academic year, but with no guarantees for future funding. However, the proposal called for the black colleges — Winston-Salem State (enrollment 6,300), Fayetteville State (5,200) and Elizabeth City State (3,300) — to change their names.

The proposal brought scathing rebukes from many in the black college community, some on social media and some at campus rallies.

Finally, two weeks ago, Republican lawmaker Tom Apodaca said he was dropping the black colleges from the bill and moving forward with his alma mater Western Carolina (enrollment 10,000) and the historically Native American University of North Carolina at Pembroke (6,400).

“I’m to the point now that if they don’t want to be a part of this bill, I’m willing to take them out and we’ll just do one campus because I’ve never tried to help people in my life and be treated so poorly,” Apodaca told a Raleigh-Durham television station.

He also told Raleigh’s The News & Observer: “If you can’t give away $70 million, then I’m not going to try to.”

Johnny C. Taylor Jr., president and chief executive officer of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund (TMCF), which helps 300,000 students at mostly public black colleges with scholarships and other support, said the two sides just don’t see eye to eye.

“It’s a trust issue,” Taylor said. “There is such a level of distrust — and in case of North Carolina, 50 to 60 years of distrust — that even if this is good for the HBCUs, the community would not believe it.”

Simply put, Taylor said, the African-American critics of the plan were not comfortable with where the overture was coming from.

So for the opponents, it was like advice Taylor sometimes dispenses to his daughter.

“I tell her never take anything from strangers,” Taylor said. “So if a stranger offers my daughter $5, she’s not going to take it.”

Ultimately, Taylor said, he hopes the issue is not dead, that the entities can work out an arrangement where the bill can be reworked to the benefit of all.

TMCF and Taylor, who wrote a guest editorial in The News & Observer, are working with new University of North Carolina system president Margaret Spellings to help bridge differences between her office and black college campuses.

The point is that every few years or so, one political or academic entity or another proposes that North Carolina’s black colleges either merge with neighboring predominantly white institutions, change their names or close their doors.

The resulting fallout would be significant, because with five public and five private black colleges, North Carolina is among the nation’s leaders in such campuses. The state’s schools draw large numbers of black students from across the nation and significant numbers of students and faculty from abroad.

The bill’s supporters note that some of the colleges are suffering from decreased enrollment, are struggling financially and have lower graduation rates than some other schools.

A couple walks near the North Carolina State Capitol on Fayetteville Street in Raleigh, N.C., on Monday, May 9, 2016. Gov.

A couple walks near the North Carolina State Capitol on Fayetteville Street in Raleigh, N.C., on Monday, May 9, 2016. N.C. lawmakers have in recent years proposed and passed legislation considered harmful to black voters, so the assault directed at HBCUs and their communities of interest is not new.

Al Drago/CQ Roll Call

Overall, however, black college enrollment increased 32 percent from 1976 to 2014, according to the National Center for Education Statistic (NCES). Yet, the colleges produced just 15 percent of all black bachelor’s degrees in 2014, the latest year the numbers are available, compared with 35 percent in 1976.

Long gone are the days when black colleges boasted of producing 50 percent of all black college graduates.

Plus, many of the schools’ problems could be addressed, mind you, with greater state and federal financial support — instead of measures that threaten their existence.

Elizabeth City State, which suffered an enrollment decline of 27 percent from 2010 to 2013, might have fared better had it been granted a proposed stand-alone, four-year pharmacy doctoral program in 2005 — rather than a compromised shared program with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill that was discontinued in 2013.

Willie Gilchrist, who was Elizabeth City State’s chancellor during the tenure of the program, said it would still be viable had his campus had control of the applicant pool.

“Many students, some our own Elizabeth City students, were rejected by Chapel Hill,” Gilchrist said. “They went on to other graduate pharmacy programs, at Campbell University and other schools, and now they are successful pharmacists.”

Another implied argument against black schools — most of which were initially founded as “normal schools” to educate former slaves — is that they have largely fulfilled their missions and it’s just time to move on.

It would seem that shutting off opportunities for any number of black students to get a college degree would do nothing to help lessen the double unemployment rates of blacks compared with whites.

Insidehighered.com reported that a Gallup-Purdue University study found that black graduates of black colleges reported being significantly more likely to have felt supported while in college and to be thriving afterward than are black graduates of predominantly white institutions.

As far as moving on, the mission and purpose of black colleges have been changing with the times for many years now. None of them are a domain where only black students are being educated.

According to the NCES, nonblack students made up 21 percent of enrollment at black colleges in 2014, compared with 15 percent in 1976.

Black colleges have never not admitted white students, or other students of color. A white version of the Little Rock Nine’s Ernest Green would not have been the subject of a movie had he tried to enroll at Winston-Salem State University.

Black college campuses are just as diverse, and in some cases, more so than predominantly white institutions.

African-American students make up just 56 percent of the students in the law school at North Carolina Central University, whose alums include former Gov. Mike Easley. Nonblack students, including 31 percent white, make up the rest of the law school student body.

At North Carolina A&T State University, nonblack students (525) made up 31 percent of enrollment (1,121) in the engineering program for the 2015 academic year, and nonblack students made up 25 percent of the students in the agricultural sciences program.

In a 2015 U.S. News & World Report ranking, the most diverse HBCUs in the United States were led by Bluefield State (10.2 percent black), West Virginia State (11.7 percent black) and Kentucky State (61.8 percent black).

Fayetteville State (67.1 percent black) was fourth, and Elizabeth City State (74.7 percent black) was eighth.

Those schools, like many black colleges, have significant enrollments of white students and others through satellite campuses, military programs and evening classes.

These campuses have diversified without having to change their names.

As an added attraction, the three targeted North Carolina HBCUs already are the most affordable in the UNC system, ranging from about $2,700 annual in-state tuition at Fayetteville State to $3,100 at Winston-Salem State.

So for many, Senate Bill 873 seemed to be the proverbial cure looking for a disease.

Opponents of the proposal thought the bill would lead to HBCUs gradually ceasing to exist — with even their names erased from history.

One would have to wonder if they are right. The North Carolina bill easily could have proceeded without the name-change provision.

We’ll just have to wait and see if a more palatable version resurfaces.

In the meantime, beware of strangers bearing $70 million in gifts.

David R. Squires is a writer, editor and digital journalist who has worked for the New York Times, Detroit Free Press, Cleveland Plain Dealer and St. Petersburg Times. He's also a former editor-in-chief of BlackVoices.com and BVQ magazine, a former Black Enterprise writer and editor and NUTribemagazine.com managing editor.