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Tennessee State University

Learotha Williams Jr., a professor at Tennessee State University, witnessed how badly his institution needed funding when the campus was struck by lightning two years ago. The lightning damaged underground wires when it hit a central circuit in the campus’s aged electrical system. Disruptive power outages followed for weeks at the historically Black land-grant university.

“Our infrastructure shouldn’t have been to a point where a lightning strike can shut down the school, not in the 21st century,” said Williams, an associate professor of African American and public history.

But that's almost what happened. Residence halls had to be hooked up to generators, and students soon began complaining about the accommodations. More than 9,000 students signed a petition calling for tuition refunds and citing “inconsistent” hot water and electricity and “basic needs” not being met.

The “aging infrastructure” of the 109-year-old institution and years of “deferred maintenance” have made for this and other decidedly not 21st-century conditions on campus.​ The university can't afford to pay for upkeep, much less advance its technological capabilities. It has been historically underfunded by the state of Tennessee and shortchanged hundreds of millions of dollars it was owed for at least 50 years.

“I can’t overstress the dramatic effect [the underfunding has] had on TSU,” said Glenda Baskin Glover, president of Tennessee State. “It has severely hampered our student and faculty technology advancements, our ability to recruit academically talented students, to compete with the scholarship offers from other schools that can offer much more competitive scholarship packages. That’s where we are.”

By law, land-grant institutions receive an annual state match to their federal land grants for food and agriculture research. But between the fiscal years of 1957 and 2007, Tennessee budget records show no funds were directed to Tennessee State University, the state's only public HBCU. According to a report by the Tennessee Office of Legislative Budget Analysis, the state owes the university anywhere between $150 million and $544 million in unpaid land-grant funds.

The report, which details the extent of the gap, was presented April 5 to the Joint Land-Grant Institution Funding Study Committee, established by the General Assembly in 2019 to look into the shortchanged funds.

“I’m a historian, so by definition I’m a bit of a pessimist -- I don’t think it was accidental,” Williams said of the half century of missing funds. “Until 1964, open segregation, open underfunding of Black institutions, that was the law of the land throughout the South. It wasn’t a secret that white schools would get more funding than Black schools.”

The University of Tennessee, a predominantly white institution and the state's other land-grant university, did in fact get its full state funding each year. Some years it got even more than the required funding level.

Glover said no one can argue the state lacked funding if the University of Tennessee consistently got its share.

“There were funds available for the University of Tennessee, but there were no funds for TSU,” she said. “There is something wrong with that picture. And there is no right way to do what’s wrong. This is a wrong that has been perpetrated on TSU.”

Tennessee also failed to uphold a 75-25 funding ratio for the two universities since 2008, a split established by the General Assembly in 1913. If the state had consistently followed this funding formula, it would owe about $544,315,367 to Tennessee State University, according to the Legislative Budget Analysis report. If the state consistently followed its most current funding formula, 89-11, it would owe about $150,514,835.

“Tennessee State, even though underfunded, kept educating, kept retaining and kept graduating students,” said Tennessee representative Harold Love, a TSU alum and chair of the Joint Land-Grant Institution Funding Study Committee. “To me, it’s remarkable that they did this with this underfunding … Tennessee State, with its proper funding, can enhance so many more lives, can do so much for the state of Tennessee also.”

The original funding breakdown between the two land-grant institutions is based on the ratio of white to Black college-eligible people in the state. Love believes it makes sense that funding should be based on the sizes of the populations served, as long as the state pays what it owes.

Tennessee lawmakers have known about the underfunding problem for decades.

Love’s father, Harold Love Sr., worked on a report about the missing funding for Tennessee State University in 1970, after he was elected to represent the university’s district in the General Assembly in 1968. But nothing ever came of it.

Harold Love Jr. said his efforts to finish what his father started are his “most significant” project, both “as a legislator and as a son.” His family is deeply connected to Tennessee State University. His mother worked at the HBCU for 57 years, and all four of his sisters attended the institution. His grandmother graduated from the university in 1914.

“It does my heart good … to finish my father’s work, because I know he worked long and hard on this,” Love said.

Williams is grateful that the father and son lawmakers got involved. He said proving the university was consistently underfunded is a time-consuming and labor-intensive undertaking for an underresourced institution -- especially without the support of state policy makers.

“It's going to take a lot of time and a lot of research to figure out what was paid and what was not paid, just to get the data together,” he said. “And of course, it will take some funding to get the research necessary done on this.”

Tennessee State’s underfunding is hardly an isolated incident.

The institution is one of 19 historically Black universities given land-grant status under the Second Morrill Act of 1890, following the Morrill Act of 1862, which established the original land-grant universities. The 1890 law gave states two options: prove that their land-grant institutions did not discriminate by race in admissions or designate a historically Black university as a land-grant institution.

Historically Black land-grant institutions have always had trouble getting their due, said Harry L. Williams, president and CEO of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, an advocacy organization for public HBCUs.

When Harry Williams was the president of Delaware State University, also a historically Black land-grant university, he remembers reminding lawmakers when he presented his annual budget requests that his institution was entitled to a full match to federal funding.

“Every time you get a new legislator, you have to educate them on this and then you’ve got to go through that process of explaining why,” he said. But with the 1862 land-grant institutions, “you don’t have to do that. It’s automatic. Penn State will automatically get their dollar-to-dollar match. North Carolina State will automatically get it. They don’t have to go in and make a case.”

A 2013 policy brief by the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities found that more than half of 1890 land-grant institutions did not receive their full matching funds from their states, according to data from 2010 to 2012.

Today, only six or seven institutions are lacking full matches from their states, which is better but still too many, said Eugene Anderson, vice president for external diversity, equity and inclusion at the APLU.

He noted that the state match requirement at least gives historically Black land-grant institutions a “clearer marker” than other HBCUs have to prove underfunding.

“Sometimes underfunding can be in the eye of the beholder, and it could be disputed,” Anderson said. But that subjectivity disappears when “the federal government is giving X million dollars with the provision the state match the money.”

The report of Tennessee State’s shortchanging comes on the heels of a hard-won victory for HBCUs in Maryland, the culmination of a 15-year legal battle between HBCU advocates and the state over its treatment of the institutions. Maryland’s governor, Larry Hogan, signed legislation on March 24, promising $577 million in additional funds to the state’s four HBCUs over the course of a decade, starting in 2023. The act will settle a lawsuit that accused the state of allowing predominantly white institutions to illegally duplicate HBCU programs, putting HBCUs at a disadvantage. Two years ago, HBCU advocates chose not to settle for the $200 million that Hogan then called his “final offer.”

The mechanism by which Maryland HBCUs lost out on funds is different than Tennessee State’s case, but the two scenarios are part of the same ongoing story -- states hampering HBCUs' financial growth and their ability to compete, said Andrés Castro Samayoa, an assistant professor of educational leadership and higher education at Boston College and director for assessment and strategy at the Rutgers Center for Minority Serving Institutions.

“It’s something that we have seen time and time again in multiple states,” Samayoa said. “It’s normalizing practices that were already set up to be disparate and justifying the maintenance of those formulas as standard practice.”

Love is looking to the legislation in Maryland as a model of what could happen for Tennessee State, a plan where the state pays back the debt over a predetermined period of time. When his committee meets in May and June, he will recommend that the Tennessee Higher Education Commission and Tennessee State University Board of Trustees and president come together to make a repayment plan. He hopes payments start going to the university in spring 2022.

Harry Williams, of the Thurgood Marshall Fund, said the outcome of the Maryland case and the attention state lawmakers across the country are paying to the Tennessee State funding data are signs of potential change for HBCUs nationwide.

“Hopefully other states will see this, and those states who haven’t provided those funds will align and do the same things,” he said.

As lawmakers prepare to discuss how to compensate Tennessee State, he sees the funding repayment as a “game-changer” for the university.

The money cannot come soon enough for President Glover. Students have left the institution because it could not provide them with scholarships or financial aid to help them pay tuition or other expenses, she said. If the university had received its allotted funding all these years, it could have offered more competitive scholarships, pursued more innovative research and invested in extension programs.

She's grateful to state legislators for their “concrete effort” to rectify the historic underfunding. She hopes to see some of the debt repaid as early as this fiscal year.

“It’s never too late to do what’s right,” she said.

Learotha Williams, the Tennessee State professor, still imagines a long road ahead before the institution has the funding it is due.

“I was joking with someone, we’ll probably see the money we’re allotted, we’ll probably get the last dime, around TSU’s 200th anniversary,” he said. “I’ll be long gone when we finally get the last check.”

(Note: This article was updated to correct the amount of money offered by the state of Maryland in 2019 to settle a lawsuit filed by HBCUs in the state. The correct amount was $200 million.)

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