Fighting Back for Black Colleges

In strategy shift, advocates plan new litigation to force federal officials to challenge state policies on programs and funding.
September 29, 2006

Frustrated by what they perceive as federal and state inaction, advocates for public black colleges are planning to try to revive -- in spirit if not necessarily name -- a landmark desegregation case.

The “Adams case,” as it was known, led to a series of court-ordered agreements between the U.S. Education Department and states that once operated de jure segregated higher education systems. The case dates to 1970 and its name comes from Kenneth Adams, who was a Mississippi high school student at the time. The various state agreements were designed to promote the integration of predominantly white and historically black colleges -- the latter by making sure that they were given funds for new programs and that duplicative programs were not created at nearby white institutions as a means for a state to avoid integration.

Although the Adams case was dismissed in 1990 by a federal appeals court, many of the state agreements remain in effect and were in fact negotiated after that time. In some states, the U.S. Education Department has declared that the states have fulfilled their requirements. The National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education, which represents black colleges, has been organizing lawyers to try to revive the basic ideas behind the case.

“There has been serious slippage in some states, and in other states there has never been real compliance with the letter or spirit of the agreements,” said Lezli Baskerville, president of NAFEO. The organization has been quietly putting together a legal team and mapping a legal strategy. The basic approach behind the planned litigation is to force the Education Department to get tough with states on these issues.

Baskerville said that NAFEO was examining legal options in all states with public black colleges, but was particularly concerned with trends in Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, Ohio and Texas.

There are two “clear patterns” that have emerged in recent years, she said:

  • States have started to create programs at predominantly white institutions that hurt the chances for historically black colleges to attract new students and the funds that follow those students.
  • Flagship (predominantly white) universities have been receiving more and more state support, often at the expense of historically black colleges.

Baskerville acknowledged that these issues were not present in all states, or even in all parts of states where she sees them. But she said that the problem has become serious enough that her association wanted to pursue new approaches.

An example of the kinds of tensions NAFEO is concerned about was evident Thursday, when the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board approved a plan to create a new University of Houston branch campus in the northwest suburbs of Houston. Prairie View A&M University, a historically black institution, has opposed the plan, saying that the same geographic area has been one of its target areas to diversify its student body. Texas officials responded by giving Prairie View the exclusive right to offer certain academic programs for certain time periods, but many advocates for that university believe that’s not enough protection, given the state’s pattern for decades of treating Prairie View as a second class institution.

“In states that had apartheid systems of higher education, you have to consider the real impact of adding these kinds of programs,” said Raymond Pierce, who is leading NAFEO’s legal team and is dean of the law school at North Carolina Central University.

Texas isn’t the only state where there are debates over new programs and who gets them. In Maryland, supporters of historically black Morgan State University remain livid that state officials last year approved new business programs to be run by Towson University and the University of Baltimore. In Georgia, supporters of historically black Savannah State University have long criticized the way the state has created new programs at Armstrong Atlantic State University, which experienced a huge influx of state resources just as desegregation arrived.

In these discussions, supporters of the new programs at predominantly white institutions tend to make similar arguments: There are specific educational needs that they are trying to meet, and they harbor no ill will toward the black colleges nearby. To black colleges, such arguments ring hollow. Public black colleges suffered decades in which state legislatures gave them little in money, facilities or programs – so the good intentions of other institutions don’t tend to mean that much.

Thomas W. Dortch, Jr., founder of the National Black College Alumni Hall of Fame Foundation, said, “I know some people will argue that every institution should stand on its own, but these institutions were created to fill a major void, and they aren’t getting the support they need.”

Dortch’s group coordinates the efforts of black college alumni who are trying to lobby on behalf of their alma maters. In many cases, the administrators who run black colleges can’t play too active a role as they report to state boards that are making the decisions that black college supporters are opposing.

“The alumni are ready to get involved,” he said.

The emerging strategy is not to sue states, but the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights instead. OCR was in charge of negotiating the states’ desegregation agreements and monitoring their compliance. Pierce, who was the second in command at OCR during the Clinton administration, said that the office is “shut down” as far as enforcing agreements to protect black colleges. State officials can act against black colleges without any fear that the federal government will do anything, Pierce said.

“There is no reason to believe that civil rights laws will be enforced right now,” he said.

He wants to see a federal judge order OCR to start questioning state actions. That may be tricky. When a federal appeals court threw out the Adams case in 1990, the panel said that civil rights activists may have had a right to sue states, but not the federal government, to force improvements in states.

Pierce said that there are reasons why federal courts might  take a different approach now. Perhaps most significantly, a 1992 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court -- in a Mississippi desegregation case -- found that duplicative academic programs at nearby predominantly white and historically black colleges were “part and parcel” of the unconstitutional, “separate but equal” philosophy of segregation. In addition, Pierce said, there is now clear evidence that states will not act by themselves, and that the federal government is ignoring its obligations to enforce the agreements it made.

A spokesman for OCR said Thursday that he had no knowledge of the planned suit -- and that the agency remained committed to its role in desegregation cases. "OCR takes seriously the monitoring and correction of civil rights violations," he said. "We have open cases in seven states involving the desegregation of public higher education systems, and these are legally complex issues. OCR is continuing to monitor the progress in those states to ensure compliance."

Pierce said that a suit could be filed by the end of the year. Officially, NAFEO hasn’t decided on a suit yet. But Pierce made no attempt to suggest that there could be a strategy other than renewed litigation. “What we’re asking for is enforcement of federal law. This is a situation where you have to go to court."


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