Race and Power in Mississippi

January 29, 2010

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.

This week, many students, faculty and alumni of the three black universities are furious once again -- and they are surprised this time. Since November, they have organized rallies and protests against the governor's merger plan and many believed that legislators were, as a result, committed to killing it.

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.

"I still cannot believe Dr. Mason did this!" says a post from a graduate student at Jackson State who created a Facebook group called "Protect our HBCU's: Vote of No Confidence in Dr. Ron Mason." The description of the group is: "Dr. Mason's rubber stamp of the Governor's proposal to merge the three HBCUs is incredulous. He is not fit to lead Jackson State University." In the online discussions at the Clarion-Ledger, Mason is being accused by some of "Jim Crow Uncle Tom thinking" and of deceiving his campus.

In an interview with Inside Higher Ed on Thursday, Mason acknowledged that this isn't how he was hoping to present his ideas to the state. In fact, the news broke when he was on a trip in Washington, and he had to address a special student meeting on the plan by phone Wednesday. But if the plan "wasn't ready" for the public, Mason said he realizes that it's public now, so he released documents that he prepared about it, and discussed his ideas, which he said have been distorted. For starters, he said, his plan isn't the governor's plan and that he doesn't want any plan for black colleges to come from the governor.

"I'm against the governor's proposal. It's a bad idea, and we'll be fighting for generations with that kind of forced merger," he said. But that doesn't mean mergers are inherently bad, he said. To work, such proposals need to come out of black colleges and not be imposed on them, he said. "I think this is a decision to be made by the HBCU community. We work together or die apart, and the future of these schools is a decision that needs to be made by the direct constituents of these schools."

Mason also said that he's not necessarily calling for a merger, but for "a discussion of a merger." Some in the state doubt that he's undecided, given that he's made a strong case for a merger in private conversations, and has drafted a position paper that argues for a merger, even going so far as suggesting a mascot (a phoenix) and a new name for the combined institution.

Noting that both Alcorn State and Jackson State are named for slave owners, Mason suggests that the combined institution be named Jacobs State University, in honor of H.P. Jacobs, a self-educated one-time slave who went on to found, in 1877, Natchez Seminary, an institution that eventually became part of the state higher education system and over time became Jackson State.

The position paper Mason wrote is also clearly different from Governor Barbour's analysis, which simply stated that the state could save money through efficiencies of combining institutions.

The Phoenix, Ronald Mason Jr.'s suggested mascot for Jacobs State University

In contrast, Mason writes about how the black colleges were created "to keep black people out of white schools," how they lack "the same access to wealth as other schools," and how they must "generally struggle from day to day." If Mason is more frank than white politicians about the discrimination that the state's black colleges experienced over the years, he is also more frank about the impact that being underfunded has on the choices of students. "Is it any wonder that 'white' Mississippi universities become blacker every day?" he asks.

While noting that the three black universities educate students whom other institutions would not nurture, Mason says that he views the institutions as being in real danger if they don't do something radically different. "There is a real possibility that Mississippi's HBCUs may disappear within our lifetime," he writes. Given the lack of funds over the years, the current "draconian" cuts being considered by the state could destroy the institutions. (Jackson State, for example, is facing a 23 percent cut in state support over two years.)

In the interview, Mason said those realities led him to think that one "strong" black college may be better than three of the "financially weakest" institutions in the state. Part of the strength could come from economies of scale, he said, citing logic similar to that of the governor. "Given the resources, we can't afford to have three athletics programs, three bands, and triple of everything we operate, human resources, purchasing, information technology. There is no reason we can't work together to save some money," he said.

But moving beyond the governor's economic motivations, Mason said that there is an educational vision for a combined institution that could have more of an impact on black Mississippi. Imagine, he said, if Jackson State's education and social work students trained during their junior and senior years in communities near Mississippi Valley State (in the Delta region), and started to tackle black poverty in that area. He stressed that he would like to see the three campuses all operating, but in a more coordinated way. The combined, larger institution, he said, would have more money, more students and more clout than any of the institutions have now.

In the paper, Mason says he realizes that institutional loyalties are strong, given the universities' histories and unique roles. But he writes that students and alumni need to think of the black citizens of the state, not just those served by any one institution. "I understand that emotions run deep, and that I am probably less emotional than alumni about the colors purple, green and blue," he writes. "I have great empathy and respect for the importance of being purple, green and blue. Their institutions' accomplishments can be commemorated and traditions preserved. However, at this moment in history, I truly believe that it is critically important to be black first."

A Call for 'Creative Ideas'

Lezli Baskerville, president of the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education, which represents black colleges, was critical of Governor Barbour's proposal, but she said she views Mason's ideas as different. Baskerville said that her objection to Barbour's ideas was that the governor developed them himself, without involving black colleges. Baskerville said she wasn't endorsing a merger, but she said that many black colleges do face serious financial problems, and that "all creative ideas should be on the table," as long as the black colleges themselves are involved in the discussion.

Baskerville said that she was not "locking into any model" and didn't believe Mason was either, and she applauded him for putting out a set of ideas for consideration.

The personal criticism he has received this week is unfair, she said. "We need to have thought leaders who go beyond parochial thinking, and Dr. Mason is a thought leader," she said. "His record and commitment to black colleges are clear."

At home in Jackson, it's not clear that everyone shares Baskerville's views. At the student forum Wednesday, the Clarion-Ledger reported boos greeted some of his statements. (He said he didn't hear them.) Hilliard Lackey, who teaches history at Jackson State and is president of its national alumni association, was on campus Thursday and he said that "there's nobody on the campus who is in favor of this." The alumni association is "categorically against it," he added.

Lackey said that those who care about Jackson State and the other black colleges have strong loyalty to their institutions and "fear of the unknown" with regard to the state's future commitment to the institutions, with some fearing that merger is the first step to elimination. "Very few black people will buy into this," he said.

Part of the problem, he said, is that people at Jackson State have mobilized to oppose the governor's merger plan, organizing rallies, letter-writing campaigns, and political activity, constantly running through the reasons the institutions should be independent. "In the midst of the anti-merger movement, it seems like he's joined the enemy," Lackey said. (Another rally took place Thursday, the Clarion-Ledger reported.)

At Alcorn State, the proposals come at a transitional period. In December, George E. Ross announced that he was leaving the presidency, after only two years in office, to become president of Central Michigan University, where he had served as a vice president before coming to Mississippi.

Mississippi Valley's president, Donna H. Oliver, has been in office one year. She said via e-mail that she does not agree with Mason's proposal. "Our position regarding the proposed merger has not changed. I am not in favor of merger in any form. Our faculty, staff and students are remaining focused on Mississippi Valley State University remaining independent. The Valley is important as it serves one of the most critical regions in the state as an institution of higher learning." (Mason said in the interview that he briefed the leaders of the other universities on his idea, but didn't ask for or receive an endorsement.)

The Impact of History

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."

Gasman said she has heard privately from advocates for black students in Mississippi, since the governor's proposal, some interest in talking about different structures, including merged institutions. So she said that Mason is not the only black educator in the state talking about these ideas.

Mason said that "privately, people have told me this is something worth talking about. I have more e-mails from people saying they like the idea than people saying it's time for you to leave Jackson State," he said. These are e-mails from people who care about black colleges, and know the financial picture, who know "the reality is what it is."

He stressed that what he is most certain of is the need for a broader conversation. "I don't mind disagreement with the idea," he said. "But I'm a little distressed that some people want to stop us from having the conversation."

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