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  • Donald V. Watkins

Why Tuskegee University Gets State Funding


IMAGE: Birmingham Southern College graduates in May 2022.

By: Donald V. Watkins

Copyrighted and Published on December 21, 2022


An Editorial Opinion


There is a firestorm of controversy involving a recent proposal by state Representative Juandalynn Givan and state Senator Roger Smitherman to provide $30 million in state funding to Birmingham Southern College (BSC), a historically white college in Birmingham, Alabama. BSC is a 1,000-student liberal arts college that is in financial distress and in danger of collapsing in 2023.


Givan and Smitherman are also spearheading an effort to secure an addition $5 million from the city of Birmingham and $2.5 million from Jefferson County, Alabama.


All total, the proposed taxpayer-sponsored bailout package peddled by these two lawmakers for BSC totals $37.5 million.


One of the main arguments Givan and Smitherman have advanced in support of their bailout package is the fact that Tuskegee University, a prestigious HBCU founded in 1881 by Booker T. Washington, receives an annual appropriation from the state of Alabama. This is true.


However, this argument is fatally flawed because it overlooks the historical context and legal underpinnings for the state’s funding of Tuskegee University.


The Flawed Argument about the State’s Support for Tuskegee University


In 1896, the U.S. Supreme Court decided the case of Plessy v. Ferguson. This case ushered in the era of “separate but equal” with respect to racially segregated public facilities, accommodations, and educational institutions.


In 1938, the U.S. Supreme Court decided the case of Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada. This case held that states practicing racial segregation in education had to provide equal undergraduate and graduate programs for their black citizens. Gaines frightened white state government in Alabama "because Alabama did not have graduate and professional schools to which blacks in the state could go."


In response to Gaines, Alabama Governor Chauncey Sparks' administration and the State Legislature began substantially increasing the budgets of Alabama State University (ASU) and Alabama A&M University (AAMU) in an effort to gain them academic accreditation and satisfy the Supreme Court's mandate.


In 1948, ASU's name was changed from Alabama State Teachers College to Alabama State College for Negroes, in order to emphasize its broadly collegiate function. In addition, the state implemented a plan to pay a percentage of the tuition for black students who could not get graduate or professional training at ASU, AAMU, or Tuskegee so that they could attend graduate and professional schools out of state.


State officials continued pumping state money into Tuskegee because it was cheaper to provide limited state support of Tuskegee for graduate programs for black students in agriculture, home economics, and veterinary medicine than it was to invest the money needed to elevate AAMU to full land grant college status.


During his 1942-46 administration, Governor Sparks implemented a three-prong program to respond to the Gaines decision:


(1) A program was established to supplement the tuition of black students required to leave Alabama to pursue graduate and professional education. [My brother, Dr. Levi Watkins, Jr., MD, attended Vanderbilt Medical School on this program in 1966 after he was denied admission to the University of Alabama's medical school in Birmingham because of his race.]


(2) In return for the state gaining the right to appoint five members of its board of trustees, Tuskegee university agreed to provide graduate programs for blacks in veterinary medicine, home economics, and agriculture, at state expense. See, Ala.Code § 16-57-1.


(3) Resources were substantially increased for ASU and AAMU in order to gain them accreditation "and become acceptable alternatives in the eyes of the federal courts for the white colleges."


This thoroughly documented history is laid out in a 1981 federal court opinion in the landmark Alabama higher education desegregation case of Knight v. Alabama, which was authored by former U.S. District Court judge U.W. Clemon.


Fast forward to today: BSC offers no undergraduate or graduate program that is not readily available at multiple colleges and universities in Alabama to all college-bound students in the state. As such, the Tuskegee state funding model advanced by Givan and Smitherman carries no weight in the debate about state funding for BSC.


Givan and Smitherman Would Force Poor Alabamians to Fund Collegiate Educational Opportunities for America’s Richest College Kids


According to a 2017 New York Times article, the median family income of a student from Birmingham Southern is $133,900, and 58% come from the top 20 percent of all American families. About 1% of students at Birmingham Southern came from a poor family but became a rich adult.


According to 2020 Census data, the median income of Alabama families is $54,943. What is more, 16.1% of Alabamians live in poverty. Rep. Givan’s and Sen. Smitherman’s legislative districts have a per capita income of less than $30,000 per year.


Yet, Rep. Givan and Sen. Smitherman are asking some of the poorest people in the America to bail out a small, elite, private college that caters to the top 20 percent of American families. This makes no sense.


The Birmingham Southern circle of family, friends, and alumni are more than capable of bailing out the college from its current financial crisis. If they don't see any economic and academic value in BSC at this time, why do Givan and Smitherman feel the need to solve BSC's financial crisis?


Enough is Enough


When are Jefferson County and city of Birmingham elected officials going to say "no" to the rich power-players, in and out of the state, who perpetually use them as political pack mules to carry their special financial interests? These "sugar daddy" financial arrangements must come to an end.


If not, when are these elected officials going to deliver $37.5 million in tangible economic benefits to their political constituents, or to historically disadvantaged private colleges in Alabama like Miles College, Talladega College, Stillman College, and Oakwood College.


Until Rep. Givan and Sen. Smitherman take good care of their political constituents, as well as the very deserving and long-suffering private HBCUs in Alabama, they should let America’s class of super-rich oligarchs take care of their privileged college-bound students and the elite private schools they attend.

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