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A North Carolina bill that would slash tuition at five state universities is drawing fire from critics who fear it heavily targets historically black institutions’ finances and identities.

The stated intention of the bill, Senate Bill 873, is to make public education more affordable in North Carolina, a state that has in recent years squeezed budgets at its well-known university system and moved to emphasize community college as a way to cut costs. But while portions of the bill would affect all of the state’s public universities, it’s generating significant controversy for measures directly aimed at Elizabeth City State University, Fayetteville State University, the University of North Carolina at Pembroke, Winston-Salem State University and Western Carolina University. The bill does not mention two other public North Carolina HBCUs, North Carolina A&T and North Carolina Central Universities.

Three of the named universities, Elizabeth City State, Fayetteville State and Winston-Salem State, are historically black colleges and universities. The fourth, UNC Pembroke, was founded in the late 1800s to train American Indian teachers and today enrolls a large number of African-American and American Indian students.

A pair of measures specifically affect the five universities in question. The first would require them to slash tuition in 2018, down to $500 a semester for in-state students and $2,500 for out-of-state students. The other would call on the UNC board of to consider removing the state’s 18 percent cap on out-of-state students for the five institutions named in the bill. The board would be allowed to change or eliminate that cap if it determines doing so would increase the number, academic strength and diversity of student applications at the universities.

Other parts of the bill that don’t single out the five schools have drawn criticism as well. Chief among them is one that would have UNC’s administration evaluating the effects of name changes at institutions. The system’s board of governors would then be charged with recommending name changes for institutions if it’s determined new names would improve application numbers, academic strength and student diversity.

Critics see the bill as, at best, an example of lawmakers meddling in the operation of the university system. At worst, they see it as a thinly veiled attempt to whitewash the state’s lower-performing historically black universities -- a continuation of a widespread trend of targeting institutions founded to teach black students in a time of legally enforced education segregation. The critics see the tuition provision undercutting finances at universities without large endowments or powerful supporters to advocate for new funding in the Legislature, and they are wary of the potential name changes as breaks from history that would end decades of loyalty from black students and alumni. They also wonder if the lifting of enrollment caps is a not-too-subtle push for institutions to admit higher-paying white students.

The UNC system’s Faculty Assembly is still in the process of reviewing and analyzing the bill, said Chairman Stephen Leonard, a professor of political science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. But faculty members are clearly concerned, he said.

“I would say that the most significant concern about this legislation is the fact that it cuts tuition following years of reduction in state appropriations,” Leonard said. “I see this as another example of legislative interference -- unnecessary and inappropriate legislative interference in the prerogative authority of the Board of Governors.”

The tuition requirements would impose tuition reductions estimated at more than 80 percent at the four universities serving predominantly minority students. Estimates have placed the collective revenue loss at those institutions at nearly $60 million per year.

The state of North Carolina would fund the tuition cut with money from its general fund, Republican Senator Tom Apodaca said, according to The News & Observer of Raleigh. Apodaca, a powerful member of the Legislature who is the bill’s primary sponsor, said the measure would cost the state between $60 and $80 million. But the bill in its current form does not mention moving that money from the general fund. And North Carolina is currently governed by lawmakers who are frugal across the board when it comes to state spending.

To many, that leaves funding an open and important question.

“If they take our tuition and cut it to $500, what that translates to is a $26 million loss in revenue to the university,” said David McCord, a professor of clinical psychology at Western Carolina and the chair of the university’s Faculty Senate. “It’s an immediate alarm for us, because it can really do some huge damage.”

The lost funding is the equivalent of the salaries of 350 of Western Carolina’s full-time faculty members, according to McCord. It would follow steep cuts to the university’s state appropriation in recent years.

Yet Western Carolina’s profile is different than the other universities on the bill’s list. Its enrollment has trended up in recent years where the other universities have seen greater struggles, and McCord said it’s in a better financial position. Elizabeth City State in particular has struggled of late, with enrollment dropping more than 50 percent between 2010 and 2015, to 1,585. The university’s chancellor resigned after about a year in the position in December, and it was also the target of an attempted closure by the Legislature in recent years.

There have been rumblings that Western Carolina was included in the bill’s list of institutions as a way to disguise a targeting of historically black universities. But for many, the reasons for the university’s inclusion remain unclear. It could simply be of the most interest to its sponsor, Apodaca. He is a Western Carolina graduate and former member of the university’s board.

“Five schools on the list, four of which are minority serving, and then Western,” McCord said. “We get added to the list for no reason anyone can come up with. The conspiracy theorists say it’s as a distracter. But who is distracted by that?”

Johnny C. Taylor Jr., president and CEO of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, was not persuaded by the idea that the bill is a disguised attempt to destroy HBCUs. He criticized the way it was introduced. To the best of the knowledge of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund -- a national organization that advocates and raises money for 47 public HBCUs across the country -- no one sat down with universities to discuss the bill’s potential unintended consequences, Taylor said.

Taylor did say the bill has faults, however. He criticized the portion opening the door to renaming universities.

“I do not for the life of me understand why you would even begin to talk about name changing,” Taylor said. “The notion that some legislator can decide to change the name of your institution ignores history, it ignores the alumni, it ignores current students.”

Despite flaws, Taylor was willing to acknowledge that the bill attempts to strike at the cost of attending college.

“College affordability has always been a concern of ours, and frankly, of historically black colleges and universities,” Taylor said. “At some level, on its surface, this seems to try to be responsive.”

The bill's sponsor, Apodaca, did not return a request for comment. Reports on the bill go back months. In February, when a proposal to slash tuition was said to be circulating with lawmakers, UNC Board of Governors Chairman W. Louis Bissette Jr. said proposals were being floated that could drastically change circumstances for students.

“There has been a lot of discussion about what we can do to reduce the tuition burden on our students, not only on our smaller campuses but across the system,” Bissette told the News & Observer. “There are some really good ideas out there. There are some great ideas about how we can help some of our institutions that are struggling.”

The News & Observer also quoted from an opinion piece Fayetteville State Chancellor James A. Anderson submitted to North Carolina newspapers before the bill’s filing. The bill continues unequal treatment minority institutions have historically faced, he said.

“I am waiting on a rational explanation as to why there needs to be a name change among the ‘select’ institutions,” Anderson wrote. “Let’s be honest: Appalachian State, East Carolina, Western Carolina and North Carolina A&T are not going to be asked to change their name. So why us or other HBUs?”

Leaders at several of the named universities were not available for comment. Winston-Salem University and UNC Pembroke released statements saying they were reviewing the bill.

“We presently offer the third-least-expensive tuition for resident undergraduates of all the UNC schools,” Winston-Salem State’s statement read in part. “We are keenly interested in having discussions on how to ensure college is within reach for all people who desire to pursue it.”

UNC Pembroke Chancellor Robin Gary Cummings said all of the bill’s potential effects will be reviewed.

“Access to higher education has been at the core of UNC Pembroke’s mission since its founding 129 years ago, so we welcome discussion about ensuring college is within reach for as many people as possible,” he said.

Chancellors at the universities are in a tough spot, said Marybeth Gasman, a professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania and the director of the Penn Center for Minority-Serving Institutions.

“I think that leaders of black colleges in the state of North Carolina are in a very difficult situation,” Gasman said. “It’s very difficult to speak out against the state, because the state is funding you.”

The North Carolina proposal fits into a line of actions that some have seen as attempts to chip away at HBCUs. Mississippi's then-governor, Haley Barbour, in 2009 proposed combining three public black colleges in a plan that was ultimately stopped. Two years later, Louisiana's then-governor, Bobby Jindal, proposed another plan that was ultimately defeated, a merger of the historically black Southern University in New Orleans with the University of New Orleans, a largely white institution. Then in 2015 the University System of Georgia decided to merge historically black Albany State with Darton State College, a move its Board of Regents approved that represents the first in the state to combine an HBCU with a predominantly white institution.

Legislators tend not to care about legacies, Gasman said. And at a time when lawmakers are trying to cut costs, HBCUs can seem to be low-hanging fruit. North Carolina has made efforts in recent years to move toward performance funding for higher education. That poses a challenge for HBCUs and other institutions that tend to serve lower-income, underprepared and first-generation students, Gasman said.

“More and more HBCUs are going to have to focus on showing and having evidence of their contributions,” Gasman said. “There are going to have to be concerted efforts to be showing evidence that you’re making positive contributions to communities, students and beyond.”

Gasman was concerned that the North Carolina bill could hurt the named HBCUs. It could also have the effect of pushing young black men off their campuses if those institutions lose their financial base or increase enrollment of students fitting other demographics -- and there aren’t other institutions with large numbers of black men for them to shift to, she said.

The bill comes at a time when many already see HBCUs as being squeezed in North Carolina. The state is moving toward an initiative called the NC Guaranteed Admission Program for students starting in 2017-18. It would divert least-qualified students going to UNC institutions to community colleges, then guarantee them admission as juniors. A March report on the program found it could imperil North Carolina’s historically black universities while hurting minority, low-income and rural students.

That’s a major concern of the faculty at UNC Pembroke, said Scott Hicks, an associate professor of English and chair of the university’s Faculty Senate. “In the end, faculty welcome students who need support,” Hicks said. “We welcome students who need access to education, and we feel like this puts us in a bad position.”

A spokeswoman for the University of North Carolina System said neither UNC President Margaret Spellings nor Board of Governors Chairman Bissette have taken a formal position on the bill. She sent a statement saying the bill has many different parts.

“We are still reviewing its various components, and additional information and analyses will be needed to determine what impacts they could have on individual UNC institutions and the UNC system as a whole,” the statement said. “We share the goal of ensuring affordable access to a high-quality UNC education, and we are committed to working with legislative leaders to determine the most effective ways to achieve that goal.”

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