A ‘Mixed Blessing' | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

A ‘Mixed Blessing'

Along with the history of segregation and inequality among elementary and secondary education in the state, the state's historically black state universities, called HBCUs, have endured a longstanding tradition of neglect. Historical discrimination has left them, in many cases, with not only less-competitive academic programs then the state's predominantly white institutions, but also inadequate housing, buildings and resources.

In 1975 Jake Ayers Sr., the father of a college student, set out to do something about the condition of the three public HBCUs in Mississippi, starting a long and complicated saga. He filed a lawsuit with the state in an attempt to right the injustices to which these schools were accustomed. The case was first dismissed by U.S. District Judge Neal Biggers. The plaintiff then appealed the case to the 5th Circuit Court of New Orleans, which agreed with the initial dismissal in 1990. Two years later, the case was appealed again to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that the state had not done all that it could to eliminate segregation. In 1995 Biggers ruled that new admissions standards be issued and later in 2002 then-Gov. Ronnie Musgrove and the plaintiffs of the case came to a settlement of $503 million to be distributed among Jackson State, Alcorn and Mississippi Valley State universities over the next 17 years. Still dissatisfied, the plaintiffs—now led by Ayers' widow, Lillie—appealed again to the Supreme Court. The Court ruled in October to end the case, leaving the settlement in place.

"We are thrilled that the Supreme Court declared this over. Now we can start to implement plans to distribute the money to the universities," said Institution of Higher Learning College Board spokeswoman Sarah Nicholas.

The largest of the three schools, Jackson State, is entitled to $270 million of the settlement. JSU President Ronald Mason said on "Focus on JSU," a WJSU radio show, that the question is when the Legislature will fund the programs.

The problem is, the state can barely afford the considerably large settlement. "These are hard times, and if there are not going to be any taxes on anything any time soon I don't know where the money will come from," Mason said on the program. He was traveling and unable to comment for this story.

Nicholas said that she has no worries when it comes to whether the Legislature will be able to fund the programs. "The Legislature has committed to finding the money. I am confident as we are quickly approaching a new legislative session that the state's commitment to fulfill this settlement will be priority," she said.

One of Mason's major problems with the Ayers case is that the money might not be enough. "It is a mixed blessing. It is good to have these programs and Jackson State should have these kind of quality programs, but the problem is that these are expensive programs and if the Ayers money is not going to cover that cost we will have to strain other programs," he said. The major program JSU is funding out of the settlement will the School of Engineering.

Other administrators say it is unnecessary to argue over whether it is enough money. "We can definitely work with it. It does not serve anyone to question if the money is enough now. These funds address the chronic inadequacies suffered by black universities," said Christopher Casem, director of university relations for Alcorn State. At Alcorn, there are three graduate programs waiting on funds: biotechnology, physician's assisting and accounting.

"It is hard to say whether or not the money will be enough for the universities," Nicholas said. "All universities will benefit from an unlimited amount of funding, but that is not possible with the economy in this state. But I will say that this is money that these universities need."

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