Albany State University is one of the three public, historically black universities in state Sen. Lester Jackson’s proposal.

Georgia leaders debate idea to separate HBCUs from state system

An African American state senator’s proposal several months ago to help Georgia’s three public, historically black universities is facing new obstacles after a key lawmaker and the leader of the University System of Georgia said they’re against the idea.

State Rep. Calvin Smyre, D-Columbus, the longest-serving member of the Georgia Legislature, wrote a letter Monday to University System of Georgia Chancellor Steve Wrigley outlining his concerns about the proposal.

The legislation, Senate Bill 278 authored by Sen. Lester Jackson, a Savannah Democrat, would move Albany State, Fort Valley State and Savannah State universities from the University System to a proposed Georgia Agricultural & Mechanical University system.

State Sen. Lester Jackson is suggesting that Albany State, Fort Valley State and Savannah State universities be moved from the University System to a proposed Georgia Agricultural & Mechanical University system.

Jackson said he introduced the bill because he’s concerned about the future of the three schools and others like it nationally, noting many public historically black colleges and universities have experienced enrollment and state funding declines in recent years, particularly after the Great Recession. His bill would move state funding directly to those schools instead of the money coming through the University System.

Smyre, a 1970 Fort Valley State graduate who was first elected to the Legislature in 1974, says the idea is misguided.

State Rep. Calvin Smyre opposes separating Georgia’s three public, historically black universities from the state’s University System.

“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 in his letter. “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.”

Smyre sent copies of his letter to Gov. Brian Kemp and other state leaders.

>> RELATED | By the numbers: UNCF report on historically black colleges

Wrigley agreed with Smyre’s position in a letter to him Wednesday, saying the three schools “continue to receive among the highest amount of funding per student for their academic sectors.”

“It’s mutually beneficial to both USG and the institutions to have our HBCUs fully engaged in system initiatives to raise graduation rates, maintain affordability and increase efficiency,” Wrigley wrote.

State data shows enrollment declines since 2016 at Albany State and Savannah State of 11% and nearly 18%, respectively, while enrollment increased by nearly 4% at Fort Valley State. The three schools have about 13,000 students, about 4% of the University System’s enrollment of about 328,000 students.

Fort Valley State University students Keila Outen, 23, and Joseph Cornick, 22, share a laugh as they look at her smartphone in this 2018 file photo.

University System officials sent The Atlanta Journal-Constitution data Wednesday that Fort Valley State, Albany State and Savannah State were first, second and fourth, respectively, among the 10 schools in the same sector in the system in funding during fiscal year 2018 for each full-time student. They will get about 3.5% of the system’s $8.7 billion total budget for resident instruction this fiscal year, state data shows.

There’s been increasing public attention about funding to the schools, better known as HBCUs, in recent years. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution published a three-part series last year on the future of HBCUs. The AJC found states have cut funding to 3 out of 4 public HBCUs since the recession.

Some of the numbers locally and nationally trouble Jackson, who said he introduced the bill to start the conversation about how to best help the schools.

>> RELATED | AJC series on the health of HBCUs

“It seems other universities get a bigger bite at the apple than HBCUs,” Jackson said in an interview Tuesday with the AJC.

Private HBCUs in Atlanta, such as Clark Atlanta University, Morehouse and Spelman colleges, would not be impacted by the bill.

Louisiana’s Southern University System, which has campuses in three cities, is currently the only historically black system in the nation.

Albany State University band marches in front of the Georgia Capitol in this AJC file photo.
Photo: File

Jackson said in response to complaints that he didn’t communicate with other state leaders about the bill that the legislation is still in its early stages and he wanted discussions at the schools and elsewhere about the idea. Jackson said he plans a public hearing about the bill in Atlanta in late September, and he might pull the legislation if he’s convinced his idea won’t work.

Jackson said he wasn’t disturbed by Smyre’s criticism.

“Even friends disagree,” Jackson said.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.