Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Without a court fight, historically Black Alabama A&M stands to lose more than $527 million it is owed due to state-funding inequities that date to the late 1800s


Alabama A&M University

The state of Alabama owes more than $527 million to historically Black Alabama A&M University because of a funding shortage that affects land-grant institutions in 16 states. Will the state, under Republican Gov. Kay Ivey, willingly pay the debt without a court fight? Will Alabama A&M have the will and the resources to fight for the money it is owed? The answer on both counts likely is no, according to longtime attorney and civil-rights advocate Donald Watkins, who has extensive courtroom experience with such funding issues in the state. Under the headline "Alabama A&M University Owed $527,280,064 by the State. Will A&M Fight for Its Money?" Watkins writes:

Yesterday, the U.S. Departments of Education and Agriculture notified Alabama governor Kay Ivey that the state of Alabama owes historically Black Alabama A&M University $527,280,064.

Notice of the state’s debt to Alabama A&M, a land-grant university, came in the form of a letter that was sent to Ivey.

In addition to their letter to Gov. Ivey, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona and Agriculture Secretary Thomas Vilsack also sent letters of notification to the governors of Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, South Carolina, North Carolina, Texas, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia.

Altogether, the historically Black land-grant universities in these 16 states have been wrongfully underfunded for the past 30 years by $13 billion.

The amounts owed have their grounding in legislation that dates to the late 1800s. Watkins explains:

The land-grant universities mentioned in the 16 letters were established under the Morrill Acts.

The Morrill Act of 1862 gave states 30,000 acres to establish public colleges and universities, such as Auburn University, University of Florida, University of Georgia, University of  Kentucky, University of Tennessee, Texas A&M University, Louisiana State University, North Carolina State University, and other similarly situated White land-grant institutions.

When the Morrill Act of 1862 was passed, the overwhelming majority of Blacks in America were enslaved people. The Act of 1862 was a legislative companion to the Homestead Act of 1862, which gave White peasants (who were openly recruited to America from Europe) more than 270 million acres of free land between 1862 to 1986 that was wrongfully seized from Native American tribes. These land-grant universities were established to teach the new White European immigrants how to farm on the free lands that were gifted to them by the U.S. government. Each recipient was given a minimum of 160 acres of land.

Because Black students faced exclusion at those universities, a second Morrill Act was passed in 1890. This Act mandated that states either admit Black students or found separate land-grant schools for them.

Alabama A&M was founded to comply with this legal requirement for Black students in Alabama. However, A&M never received its fair share of the land-grant money from the state of Alabama.

Watkins quotes from the letter Gov. Ivey received, and we can take a wild guess that the missive probably did not make her day:

According to the letter to Governor Ivey:

“Unequitable funding of the 1890 institution in your state has caused a severe financial gap, in the last 30 years alone, an additional $527,280,064 would have been available for the university. These funds could have supported infrastructure and student services and would have better positioned the university to compete for research grants…..

Given the large amount of state funding that is owed to Alabama A&M University, it would be ambitious to address the funding disparity over the course of several years in the state budget. It might very well be your desire to do so, which we wholeheartedly support. Yet, if an ambitious timetable is not a possibility, we suggest a combination of a substantial state allocation toward the 1890 deficit, combined with a forward-looking budget commitment for a two-to-one match of federal land-grant funding for these institutions in order to bring parity to funding levels.”

So, what happens next? Watkins looks for the state to dig in its heels and drag them as slowly as possible. And he's not just guessing about that. He has up-close experience with Alabama's usual response on matters of equity for its most vulnerable citizens:

Alabama has had an unrelenting historical agenda, spanning from the late 1800s to the present, to keep its Black citizens economically, educationally, socially, and politically downtrodden, "from the cradle to the grave." Dillard v. Crenshaw (1986).

In the area of higher education, this history is well-documented in the 1991 higher-education desegregation case of Knight v. James.

I led the litigation team that dismantled Alabama’s 32-public colleges and universities' dual systems of higher education in Knight v. James. After litigating this issue for 25 years, we finally defeated Alabama’s massive resistance to providing historically Black Alabama State University and Alabama A&M the following relief: (a) court-ordered doctoral programs; (b) new academic undergraduate programs; (c) nearly $600 million in new funding (beyond the regular state appropriations) to remedy past discrimination through 1995; and (d) nearly $100 million apiece in endowment money for Alabama State and Alabama A&M.

Even today, Alabama will not give its Black citizens the second court-ordered Black Congressional district that was mandated by the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Milligan v. Allen on June 8, 2023. Once again, the state is engaging in massive resistance to the enforcement of voting rights for its Black citizens.

Absent a vigorous and sustained court fight, the state of Alabama will not pay Alabama A&M the $527,280,064 it owes the university.

Will Alabama A&M get the money it is owed? Watkins is not optimistic:

Blacks in Alabama are downtrodden and leaderless today. It is highly unlikely that Alabama A&M will muster up the courage to fight for the $527,280,064 the state owes the university.

It seems that Black public officials in Alabama only fight for historically White colleges and universities to get state funding. Just this year, Black public officials in the Birmingham metro area fought “tooth and nail” for Birmingham-Southern College, an elite private school, to get $30 million in funds from the state and $5 million from the city of Birmingham, even though BSC has a long record of suppressing educational opportunities for Blacks.

Dr. Daniel K. Wims, the president of Alabama A&M is NOT known as a fighter. Only one member of the university’s board of trustees -- Nichelle Gainey – has a proven track record of fighting for the advancement and protection of human, civil rights, and constitutional rights for people of color around the world.

Without a fight, A&M likely will lose out on money it is owed -- and probably needs pretty badly. If that happens, it means another chapter will be written in Alabama's long history of injustice toward people of color. Writes Watkins:

If Alabama A&M does not fight for this $527,280,064, the state of Alabama will claim that the university waived its entitlement to this equitable money.

Meanwhile, Gov. Ivey and other White state officials, who completely ignored the 60th anniversary of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing that killed four young girls in Sunday School on September 15, 1963, are poised to resist the payment of this $527,280,064 debt to Alabama A&M. None of these officials attended last week's commemorative event for the victims of the church bombing.

Instead, these state officials were making plans to move forward with using more than a billion dollars of windfall federal COVID money to build new prisons. They say the education of young Blacks in Alabama, to the extent necessary, can take place within the state's prison system.

In Alabama, Blacks constitute 27% of the state's residents, but 54% of the state's prison population.

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