Students at Tennessee State University event in 2019. Photo credit: TSU Student Affairs 2019

Tennessee State University is the latest HBCU with claims of being underfunded for decades

Records show over billions of dollars not given to a number of public HBCUs in a system of neglect that went on for decades.

Recent findings show that the state of Tennessee has grossly mistreated a predominantly black institution with fiscal neglect. But Tennessee is part of a continuum of public officials throughout the US that directly underdeveloped HBCUs through underfunding. Tennessee’s House Budget Analysis Director Peter Muller released a report showing what Tennessee State University students alleged years ago—-the state severely neglected its only public historically black university. So much so, Muller’s findings showed that the state shorted Tennessee State for six decades. 

Muller’s analysis revealed that the state of Tennessee owes Tennessee State between $150 million and $544 million due to its failure to honor a land grant agreement. Every year, the federal government provides money to the university, like its white counterpart, University of Tennessee. In accordance with land grant agreements, the state should match the federal funds for both institutions; however, the state of Tennessee did not give Tennessee State one cent from 1956 to 2006. 

“Nothing [was] in the budget books,” said Rep. Harold Love (D) who was part of the six-person panel that made up the Land Grant Institution Funding History Study Committee to investigate how money was allocated to Tennessee State. Love also said his father worked on a report about Tennessee State’s underfunding in 1970.

| Read: Findings show positive impact of black universities

Included in the report, Tennessee State’s agricultural extension program was underfunded, even though it was founded as an agricultural school under a land grant legislation. Also, complaints by students and faculty showed that the lack of resources made it difficult to maintain the Tennessee State’s infrastructure such as wiring and electricity, which in turn, caused damaging power outages in 2019’s cold snap in the state.

“[The underfunding] has severely hampered our student and faculty technology advancements, our ability to recruit academically talented students, to compete with the scholarship offers from other schools that can offer much more competitive scholarship packages,” said TSU’s President Glenda Baskin Glover to Inside Higher Ed.

Rep. Gary Hicks (R) added in a statement to the Tennessee Tribune, “There were years when Tennessee State had to request a waiver from the federal government and pull the money out of their general fund to even make the waiver amount match to keep the federal funds.”

President Glover also expects some type of financial restorative justice. The Tennessee Lookout reported that legislators have been discussing the issue after the land grant committee discussed the findings.  “We do have to acknowledge in the past Tennessee State has not received equitable funding,” said committee member, Sen. Brenda Gilmore (D). She added that the legislature has a “moral obligation” to counterbalance lost funds.

Heard it all before

Tennessee is not the only land-grant HBCU that has shown gross public underfunding. Last year, Maryland finally passed a bill to pay out on a 15-year-old federal lawsuit that was settled with four HBCUs in the state. The complaint accused Maryland administrators for carrying out a system that distributed resources unevenly to predominantly white institutions.

“After more than a decade and a half of litigation, and with multiple bills passed by the General Assembly, we can finally ensure that our HBCUs receive the equitable funding that they deserve,” Senate President Bill Ferguson (D) said in a statement.

Before Maryland, in 2017 the three HBCUs in Mississippi—Alcorn State University, Jackson State University and Mississippi Valley State—were awarded $500-million in a settlement agreement from a class-action lawsuit filed in 1975. In their complaint, the institutions alleged that the state directed “funding to construction projects and the expansion of academic programs,” to predominantly white institutions.

In a 2013 assessment of inequitable funding of predominantly white and black land-grant and public institutions, Donald L. Mitchell, Jr. who is now at Bellarmine University showed that Alabama, North Carolina and Louisiana have a history of severely underfunding their HBCUs. When comparing Louisiana State University’s funding to that of the state’s two public HBCUS—Grambling State University and Southern University—combined, the black colleges funding was $160.5 million less.

| Read: Beychella and the state of HBCUs

As well, Mitchell’s findings showed that “in the state of North Carolina, the University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill and North Carolina State University independently received more funds than all of the HBCUs combined within the state.”

Regardless of the challenges, HBCUs have worked tirelessly to continue to provide high-quality educational opportunities. Tennessee State just announced that it will be offering coding classes to two African countries.

As far as restorative justice for Tennessee State’s missing funds, one of the solutions offered is the state providing a $2 million increase in the upcoming budget year. Another step to repair the wrongdoing of the state, is to talk to college presidents to testify on how funds benefited their schools “to figure out how to distribute . . . .money” that is owed said Speaker Cameron Sexton (R).

Recently, Tennessee State was highlighted in the NBA finals. Tennessee State University alumnus, Robert Covington, who plays for the Portland Trailblazers, used his platform to highlight HBCUs. Covington announced that he is funding the construction of Covington Pavilion, Tennessee State’s newest practice facility for its men’s and women’s basketball teams.

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