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Don’t waste opportunity to merge black, white colleges…

December 10, 2008 by  
Filed under News

( As chairman of the Senate Higher Education Committee, state Sen. Seth Harp (R-Midland) thinks he’s found a way to save money: Consolidate some public colleges.

It’s the kind of suggestion that can look good on paper, especially in harsh economic times, but it’s a lot harder to pull off than you might think. Even closing a neighborhood elementary school can ignite a firestorm of protest.

However, Harp’s proposal does more than just chafe against the usual sentimental attachments to familiar institutions. It also touches the raw nerve of race. Given the suspicions that linger on both sides of the color line, his plan — which suggests merging two historically black colleges with two traditionally white schools — is sure to spark drawn-out debate, fevered protests and intemperate accusations.

No matter. Harp has the right idea: There is no good reason to maintain separate but equal public facilities in close proximity. Following that reasoning, he has asked the University System to consider consolidating historically black Savannah State University with nearby Armstrong Atlantic State University and historically black Albany State University with Darton College, a two-year institution in Albany.

Already, the suggestion has drawn criticism. State Sen. Vincent Fort, (D-Atlanta), a college lecturer, dismissed it as “a bad idea.” A similar proposal died a quick death 25 years ago, after then-Gov. Joe Frank Harris proposed merging black and white colleges to speed up court-ordered desegregation.

But now that dire economic circumstances have forced the idea back onto the table, let’s not let this crisis go to waste. Use the opportunity to remove the last vestiges of Jim Crow from the University System.

When Savannah State University was founded in 1890 and Albany State in 1903, they were intended to educate only black students, who were denied entry into mainstream colleges and universities. But by the 1950s and 1960s, black activists and students, aided by forward-looking federal judges, were putting their lives on the line to break down the oppressive practices that had made historically black colleges necessary.

Hamilton Holmes and Charlayne Hunter at the University of Georgia; Autherine Lucy and Vivian Malone at the University of Alabama; James Meredith at the University of Mississippi — they, among many others, helped put an end to a hateful system buttressed by a belief in white superiority.

Today, vestiges of that outdated system remain in the form of colleges that are publicly funded and virtually all-black, frozen in place by inertia, political timidity and confusion about the mission of public institutions.

Institutions supported by taxpayers should be diverse, educating men and women of all colors and creeds. There is no longer good reason for public colleges that are all-white or all-black.

(Private colleges and universities, such as Spelman or Agnes Scott or Brigham Young, serve a different role. They cater to students looking for specific environments, whether it’s young women drawn by a single-gender school or others drawn by a school’s religious affiliation.)

Many black educators continue to insist that historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) provide a nurturing environment that some black students desperately need. However, de facto segregation isn’t required to give those students remedial studies, small class sizes and attentive teachers, all of which are also available at many diverse two-year colleges.

More likely, black college administrators and alumni are worried about losing a sense of history and identity bound up with institutions that have educated generations of black students. Savannah State and Albany State each have fraternities and sororities, sports teams, bands and clubs that have played an active role in the lives of students and the surrounding communities.

In any merger, some of each institution ought to be preserved. A merged Albany State-Darton College could adopt many of Albany State’s identifying symbols. A consolidated Savannah State-Armstrong State shouldn’t end up with a predominantly white administration and faculty. Instead of fighting to preserve the status quo, alumni and administrators should work to create new institutions that provide a nurturing environment for all students.


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