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  • Writer's pictureDonald V. Watkins

Alabama’s Shabby Treatment of Its HBCUs Makes Their Proposals to Acquire Birmingham-Southern’s Campus Unfeasible and Impractical

By: Donald V. Watkins

Copyrighted and Published on May 4, 2024

An Editorial Opinion

Historically white Birmingham-Southern College (BSC) will close its doors for good on May 31, 2024.  The small private college struggled for years to make ends meet.  In the end, decades of “White Flight” from the westside of Birmingham, Alabama killed the college.


A group of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), led by Miles College has expressed interest in purchasing BSC’s 192-acre campus.  Independent of these talks, Alabama A&M University in Huntsville has announced plans to make an offer to purchase the property for its Birmingham campus.


Both plans sound good in media announcements, but will they work?


Alabama’s History of Underfunding Its HBCUs


The Alabama Office of Minority Affairs (AOMA) reports that the state has fourteen HBCUs, the largest number in the nation.  Their names and locations are depicted on the map below.

The 1991 and 1995 court orders in the higher education desegregation case of Knight v. Alabama established the following facts about Alabama’s two state-supported, four-year HBCUs (i.e., Alabama State University and Alabama A&M University):

1. ASU was founded in 1867 because black college-bound students could not attend white colleges and universities in the state, while AAMU was founded in 1875 because black students who wanted to pursue an education in agriculture and mechanical arts could not attend Auburn University.

2. ASU and AAMU have always been underfunded and neglected by the state.  As a result, these HBCUs were unaccredited for long periods of time.

3. The only equitable funding provided to ASU and AAMU during their history resulted from 1991 and 1995 federal court orders in Knight v. Alabama and this funding lasted until the court orders were lifted in the 2000s.

4. Enhancements in academic program offerings and campus facilities at ASU and AAMU resulted from court orders and not from the state of Alabama doing the right thing.

5. The bulk of endowment money for ASU and AAUM came from court orders in Knight v. Alabama and not corporate and individual donations.


Like ASU and AAMU, Alabama’s historically black, state-supported, two-year community colleges were underfunded and neglected from inception.  Equitable funding for campus facilities and academic program offerings at these colleges came from federal court orders in the case of Lee v. Macon County Board of Education (Junior Colleges and Trade Schools).  Equitable funding for these colleges ended when the court orders terminated.


In the 1950s and 60s, ASU operated satellite branches in Birmingham and Mobile.   ASU closed both branches in the 1960s due to inadequate state funding for these branch operations.

AAMU Never Collected $527 Million Owed to the University by the State


On September 18, 2023, the U.S. Departments of Education and Agriculture notified Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey that the state owed AAMU $527,280,064 due to underfunding over the past 30 years.  AAMU never made any effort to collect this $527 million debt.   


Privately, AAMU’s president told university trustees and inquiring stakeholders that AAMU is better off without this money.

On September 28, 2023, Gov. Ivey disputed the debt and threatened the basic right of AAMU to exist under the Morrill Act of 1890.  Ivey claims the Act is “unconstitutional.”

As a result of Ivey's threat, AAMU trustees have never authorized litigation to collect this $527 million debt. Instead, AAMU pursued an appeasement policy to please Gov. Ivey.


Except for Tuskegee University, private HBCUs in Alabama have operated under tight budgets since inception.  Tuskegee enjoys a reported $157 million endowment, as of 2021.


ASU’s reported endowment was $131 million, as of 2021.  AAMU self-reports an endowment of nearly $50 million.


Prior HBCU Collaborative Efforts


The only time HBCUs in Alabama united in a consortium for a common purpose occurred with the creation of the Alabama Center for Higher Education (ACHE) in 1970, which was based in Birmingham and headed by Dr. Richard Arrington, Jr.  ACHE advocated for the advancement of its eight four-year member institutions, which included ASU, AAMU, and Miles College. 


Because of the historical financial constraints experienced by many of its members institutions, ASU underwrote a disproportionate share of ACHE’s operational expenses.  AAMU paid its membership dues, but did not contribute more.

After Arrington departed ACHE to become Birmingham’s first black mayor in 1979, the organization folded.

If a new consortium of HBCUs is formed to acquire the BSC campus, Miles President Bobbie Knight has the best chance of making it happen. She is a member of Alabama Power Company's board of directors and has deep roots in the state's corporate community.

A company with the financial strength and political clout of Alabama Power is needed to back President Knight in this effort. Even then, it will takes 4 to 6 years for Knight to put such a consortium on solid financial and operational footings.


A Bridge Too Far?


Considering Alabama’s shabby treatment of its HBCUs, it is highly unlikely that a consortium of HBCUs in Alabama would be financially capable of acquiring, operating, and maintaining BSC’s campus without adequate state funding or massive corporate donations.  Apart from the operational and administrative cooperation required to own, operate, and maintain the BSC campus, the financial commitments, resources, and capabilities to do so today are sorely lacking.


AAMU might be able to acquire BSC’s campus at a “fire sale” price, but it is doubtful that the state of Alabama would adequately fund the operations of a Birmingham campus year-over-year.  AAMU has presented no feasibility study to the Legislature or public showing that the university has the financial strength needed to own, operate, and maintain the BSC campus as a permenent branch of the university.


Based upon (a) the state’s history of underfunding AAMU and (b) Alabama's near-total failure to acknowledge the intrinsic and extrinic value of HBCUs in the state, it is doubtful that the archconservative, Republican-controlled Alabama Legislature will adequately fund Birmingham campus operations for AAMU.

A glance at the endowments of HBCUs in Alabama shows that corporate giving to these institutions is and always has been anemic.


The Support Systems for HBCUs in Alabama is Shaky


The acquisition of BSC and its continued use as a college campus require planning and resources that do not rely solely on state funding.  ASU and AAMU are always one legislative session away from the abolition of their entire board of trustees (as was done this year at Tennessee State University) and/or extermination (as was attempted this year by the Mississppi Legislature).  The same is true for the state's two-year HBCUs.


Just one year ago, the archconservative U.S. Supreme Court affirmed a lower court ruling in the Congressional redistricting case of Allen v. Milligan that acknowledged Alabama’s historical agenda since the end of the Civil War to keep its black citizens downtrodden from the “cradle to the grave.”  Any HBCU that believes it is exempt from this historical treatment is delusional.


Today, the governing bodies of the HBCUs in Alabama appear to lack the experienced and expertise necessary to overcome the political forces and financial factors that have historically impeded their growth and operations in the state.  Hell, AAMU will not even collect a $527 million federal government-certified debt the state owes the university.

Furthermore, the speed at which the Alabama Legislature is regressing on racial matters suggests that neither of the two BSC campus purchase options proposed to date is feasible or practical.  A lot has to be done to make either proposal work. 



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