Questionable Mergers of Black Colleges

In 2009, the Governor of Mississippi called for the merger of the state’s three historically black colleges and universities. Just last week, the Governor of Louisiana, Bobby Jindal, ordered a study on the possible merger of Southern University of New Orleans (an HBCU) with the University of New Orleans (a historically white institution). Of note, rather than merging Southern University of New Orleans (SUNO) and the University of New Orleans (UNO) and placing the new institution in the Southern University System, which is a historically black system, Jindal suggested placing the new institution in the Louisiana State University System, a historically white system.

It is true that SUNO is not a strong HBCU—its graduation rates are dismal and it is in desperate need of funding and campus enhancements. It has had a difficult time rebounding from the travesty of Hurricane Katrina. In order to strengthen SUNO something must be done. However, Jindal’s plan is not good for African American students in New Orleans—especially low-income, first generation students from underprepared backgrounds. The proposed merger, which places the new institution in the Louisiana State University System, will in essence strip SUNO of its historically black nature, which includes a culture that aims to empower African Americans. If the merger took place and the resulting institution was put in the Southern University System, it might be possible to create an integrated institution that is much stronger, but that retains the ethos of a black college.

Too often when mergers are suggested, the end result is the elimination of another black college. Very rarely does a governor suggest merging two historically white institutions. The assumption seems to be that every white institution ought to be preserved, but the black institutions are expendable. Don’t we need as many HBCUs (and other institutions) as possible to educate blacks and others who attend them in an effort to meet our national goal of increasing degree attainment?

Too often when mergers are suggested between HBCUs and historically white institutions, the suggestion is to merge the HBCU into the white institution. While blacks attend historically white institutions regularly, there is unfortunately still a stigma about asking white students attending an institution founded for and lead by blacks.

Merging SUNO and UNO may not be a bad idea given their relative strengths and weaknesses. However, public education for all of New Orleans’ citizens needs to be considered. New Orleans is a city that often forgets its African-American population, and wiping away SUNO—instead of strengthening it and retaining its authentic black history—may be another case of the city overlooking the potential of its African-American citizenry.

Governor Jindal should consider a merger of SUNO and UNO, but should remain cognizant of the potential that an institution has if it retains its commitment to African-American students. Placing the merged institution in the Southern University System is the right thing to do in order to maintain the ethos of a black college.

And, for those people who shudder at the idea of placing an institution which results from a black-white merger into a historically black system—I have this to say. If there is parity and equality in the Louisiana systems (black and white), then no one should worry about the former UNO being placed in a historically black system. Now if there isn’t equality that may cause concern to those who know of these inequities. Perhaps the possible merger of these two institutions, which were created during a time of intense racial oppression and segregation, will foster a healthy dialogue about equity in the state of Louisiana. At least that’s what should happen.

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