Is $318 million enough to fix the underfunding of Tennessee’s only public HBCU?
During the late Harold Love Sr.’s long tenure as state representative in Tennessee from 1968 to 1994, he was acutely aware of the underfunding of the state’s only historically black public college. In his early days as a legislator, he helped lead a committee that found the state wronged Tennessee State University.
The state of Tennessee is one of 19 land-grant HBCUs established by the Second Morrill Act of 1890. The law prohibited the federal government from sending certain funds to states whose land-grant colleges refused to admit non-white students. However, states could continue to receive these funds if they also provided non-white students with separate institutions.
Even under current federal law, states are expected to fairly distribute federal funds to their land-grant institutions — which, in Tennessee’s case, are the State of Tennessee and the University of Tennessee. But Love Sr. discovered that was not the case.
“In one particular year, 1970, $4.5 million came to Tennessee to be split between the two land grants, but only $51,000 went to the State of Tennessee,” Harold Love said. Jr., his son, at Higher Ed Dive last year. “So he said, ‘It’s not fair. It is not fair. It’s 99 to 1.”
Half a century later, Love Jr. takes up his father’s fight.
The underfunding problem has several dimensions, said Love Jr., who is now also a Tennessee state representative. The question concerns the base funding that the State of Tennessee receives from the state as well as the money that the state allocates from the federal government to its two land-grant institutions. But the state is also required to provide a matching grant for every dollar its land-grant institutions receive from the federal government.
“It’s not fair. It’s 99 to 1.”
Harold Love Jr.
Love Jr. helped lead a 2021 report that found Tennessee may have failed to deliver up to $544 million of those matching payments to the state of Tennessee over several decades, forcing the university to dip into its own budget to make up for the underfunding. If the state doesn’t give the game to Tennessee State, the university can either waive the federal money or find the game itself from its general funds, Love Jr. said.
The work championed by Love Jr., a Democrat, prompted Tennessee Governor Bill Lee, a Republican, to offer to give the university $250 million in fiscal year 2023 to upgrade its facilities. Lee’s budget also includes $60 million for a new engineering building and $8 million for maintenance.
Love Jr. told Higher Ed Dive in February that it was a huge honor to complete his father’s work.
“This is by far one of the most satisfying things I’ve ever done as a legislator because I know my dad really wanted to make sure Tennessee State University got the same amount of funding she should have received,” Love mentioned. “For his work to be the foundation on which this investment is built – I think, for me – I’m very happy.”
The state of Tennessee applauded the budget proposal, and higher education experts agree the funding is needed. Still, some argue the proposal doesn’t go far enough to fix decades of state funding inequities that have forced the university to settle for less than it deserves.
“It’s necessary, but it’s insufficient to account for the loss TSU has suffered over its lifetime,” said Royel Johnson, a professor of education at the University of Southern California. “Fairness is not just about giving an institution what is legally owed to it, but about accounting for the loss, the impact of not having those resources.”
Does the state of Tennessee owe $1 billion?
William Johnson, professor of human performance and sports science at Tennessee State, has seen firsthand how underfunding has affected the university’s ability to conduct research and perform other tasks.
“We’ve had superstar faculty members – top researchers here – who both came here, conducted research, but then realized that the lab facilities and research support aren’t there to help. that they may continue on their way”, William Johnson mentioned. “So they leave.”
The campus is dotted with other visible reminders of funding disparities.
“There’s a lot, a lot, a lot of deferred maintenance and crumbling buildings and all that kind of stuff,” William Johnson said.
A 2020 report from JLL, a real estate services company, found that nine buildings on campus would be in poor condition or worse if they did not receive maintenance within a year. He estimated that fixing these and other issues would cost $88.6 million and that these deferred maintenance costs would increase to $427.5 million within a decade. .
Glenda Glover, Tennessee State President praised the governor’s budget plan, which would give the university $318 million in one-time capital funding, in a statement to Tennessee Lookout, saying the money will directly benefit the university’s faculty, staff and students as well as all state residents. Repairs could begin as early as July if Tennessee lawmakers approve the budget proposal.
While facility upgrades are needed, William Johnson argued the proposed pot of money does not address what the university has lacked through decades of underfunding. And higher education experts said the money shouldn’t be limited to capital improvements.
“The Legislature doesn’t want to hear that and certainly my institution doesn’t want me to say that, but is the damage actually $1 billion?” said William Johnson. “Is it $2 billion? Is it $6 billion? Who knows what the opportunities would have been?
A history of underfunding
The Tennessee Legislature only began enforcing its matching requirement for the state of Tennessee in 2017, Forbes recently reported. But the state of Tennessee is not alone in this situation: A 2013 report by the Association of Public Universities and Land Grants found several other HBCUs. missed state games over a two-year study period.
These issues have caught the attention of federal lawmakers. In February, six Democratic representatives stated in a letter that the 19 land-grant HBCUs received only 82% of the state counterpart funds they were eligible for in FY2020, while their counterparts received 100% of the funds owed to them.
In the Forbes analysis, the authors compared state funding per student for predominantly white land-granting universities with their HBCU counterparts. Had they been funded equally, according to the publication, the state of Tennessee would have received an additional $1.9 billion over the 1987-2020 period studied.
Only Florida A&M University and North Carolina A&T State University — which were underfunded by $1.9 billion and $2.8 billion, respectively — had missed larger levels of funding, the analysis found. .
Forbes said some of the disparities can be explained by the research strength of some of the predominantly white institutions he studied. However, the authors wrote, this may create a self-fulfilling prophecy, where the ability of predominantly white institutions to conduct research increases following years of generous state funding, while their counterparts at HBCU are forced to work with much less.
“It just becomes an unfair playing field when our HBCUs are forced to use their own discretionary funds to cover the costs that other state governments routinely give to predominantly white institutions,” said Erin Lynch, vice president. scholarships, research, and innovation at Winston-Salem State University, an HBCU in North Carolina. “It really perpetuates underfunded communities.”
Yet many HBCUs have thriving student populations despite their history of underfunding. In 2016, HBCUs accounted for just 9% of four-year institutions in the states where they were located, but awarded 26% of all bachelor’s degrees to black students, according to a 2019 report of the UNCF, which defends the interests of private HBCUs.
The organization also found that HBCUs annually generate approximately 134,000 jobs and create an economic impact of $14.8 billion for their local and regional economies.
“Imagine what the economic impact might have been had they been funded at the same level as other flagship institutions or other institutions serving non-minorities in their state,” Lynch said.
Lynch, also a former student and state employee of Tennessee, argued that $250 million was not enough to remedy the university’s underfunding. Still, she and other higher education experts hope the budget proposal will spark similar discussions in other states.
“Hopefully it will force people to rethink what they’re doing,” Lynch said.