During this time of economic uncertainty, some historically Black colleges and universities are being hit hard as they try to stave off foreclosures, layoffs and dwindling enrollments. Now Georgia politician Seth Harp (R-GA) says he knows how to ease racial tensions while cutting costs in a state known as a mecca for HBCUs-merge Black institutions with White ones. ESSENCE asks Carlton E. Brown, president of Clark Atlanta University, if HBCUs can weather the storm.
ESSENCE: There have been rumors about Georgia’s HBCUs downsizing. What’s really happening?
BROWN: The most important thing to understand is that nothing is happening to HBCUs that is not also happening to every other institution in America. All of our major donors have been calling us this year informing us that they have been losing money. This past fall we enrolled 200 fewer students than we expected, not because of a lack of desire to attend but because of their inability to meet the bill.
ESSENCE: What is the response from African-Americans to this merger proposal from Republican State Senator Seth Harp?
BROWN: When things are going well people become comfortable. You might even say complacent. When these issues are raised, they begin to naturally react and think about all the differences that these institutions make in the lives of communities. These institutions pride themselves on building the kind of relationships with students that are transformative.
ESSENCE: Do you feel as if this proposal is a political or economic issue?
BROWN: It’s become both. In a time of economic decline, everyone looks for what they think is a reduction in cost. It’s like reducing your police force. But by that kind of reduction, you increase unrecoverable costs: There is more death and destruction. The same thing is true when you’re talking about these kinds of institutions.
ESSENCE: Is there another answer to save money other than merging?
BROWN: The bottom line is that states should be called to support these institutions at the level that they should have been supporting them the last 100-plus years.
ESSENCE: What’s your take on Senator Harp’s explanation that the merger would end signs of Jim Crow segregation?
BROWN: I would oppose that. At the point of desegregation, the logical and just approach would have been to close the White institutions, which existed to perpetuate discrimination.
ESSENCE: If the proposal becomes reality, what do you think it would mean for HBCUs?
BROWN: I think it would be the beginning of the end for them.