NEW FINDINGS: Influential Georgia lawmaker against HBCU consolidation bill

One of Georgia’s most influential African American lawmakers said publicly Tuesday he’s against a bill introduced earlier this year that its author says would strengthen the state’s three public, historically black universities by consolidating them under a new funding system.

The bill “would also unnecessarily and perhaps unwittingly diminish the particular role each public HBCU plays in this state by assuming that their needs and ability to educate Georgians are different from those of non-HBCUs,” state Rep. Calvin Smyre, D-Columbus, said in a news release. Smyre’s comments were part of a letter he wrote Monday to University System of Georgia Chancellor Steve Wrigley.

State Sen. Lester Jackson, D-Savannah, introduced the legislation, Senate Bill 278 just before the legislative session ended in March. The bill would consolidate Albany State, Fort Valley State, and Savannah State universities, representing a total of some 13,000 students, into a Georgia Agricultural and Mechanical University System. The schools receive funding through the Georgia Board of Regents.

Jackson said in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in late April that he believes the new system would help the schools financially and allow them to create more academic programs.

“We would become our own advocates, working directly with the General Assembly and directly with the governor’s office – instead of going through a third party,” Jackson said. “We would have the ability to ask for a law school, a pharmacy school, a veterinarian school. That will not just attract students but give us our own identity and our own self-worth.”

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The bill quickly stalled as several lawmakers and education leaders knew little about the legislation beforehand and had many questions about it. Some lawmakers and community groups have held meetings about the bill in recent weeks.

Smyre, the longest-serving member in the Georgia House of Representatives, graduated from Fort Valley State in 1970 and currently serves as chairman of the foundation’s board of directors.

Smyre, first elected to the House in 1974, said the best solution is to ensure the three universities get necessary state funding. He’s vice chairman on the Appropriations Subcommittee on Higher Education.

“Simply separating the three historically black universities off to one side, however well-intentioned it may be, is a nineteenth-century solution to twenty-first century challenges,” Smyre said. “The goal, instead, should be to equitably empower these institutions to be centers of excellence so that they may prepare students to become the professionals this state, nation, and world needs to move humanity forward.”