Black public colleges face money bind, legal tests as they fight to keep their identities; Some colleges may merge with mostly-white schools

Albert N. Whiting has a vision for the future of black public colleges. "I propose that black colleges do a massive redesigning of their cultural orientation, that they broaden their scope to appeal to white students," says Dr. Whiting, chancellor of the traditionally black North Carolina Central University (NCUU) in Durham, N.C. "Black public colleges can make a choice -- act to survive, or talk politics to pacify egos. The choice is ours."

NCCU is one of five black public colleges in the Tarheel State that came under an order from a US District Court in 1978 to desegregate. The case was known as Adams v. Bell.

According to the court's decision, black public colleges are obligated to desegregate along with white institutions in 17 Southern states which had legal segregation before the passage of the US Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The Reagan administration is undecided on what should be done with schools that remain predominantly black. Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell suggests a solution may be found through "negotiation," but black civil rights and education leaders are angry.

"Limousine liberals have concocted the Adams case on the theory that blacks cannot learn unless they pursue their education with a large number of whites," says Kenneth tollett, director of the Institute for the Study of Educational Policy at Howard University in Washington, D.C., a think than which studies blacks in higher education.

"I am not against desegregation, but I see no compelling reasons for setting a percentage of whites on black campuses. Black schools have never denied white admissions. I am not for forced mixing in these schools."

Arguing for such integration, Jean Fairfax of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund says, "All we ask is that states that ran 'separate, but unequal' segregated colleges obey Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and desegregate." The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) initiated the Adams case in 1970.

Chancellor Whiting supports this position, pointing out that NCCU is designing programs it hopes will appeal to a greater number of white students.

But the full impact of the Adams v. Bell is yet to be felt on the nation's 38 black public college campuses.And the final outcome of the dispute may well be affected by:

* How the Reagan administration pursues court actions -- whether officials "negotiate" or push for full enforcement of Title VI which could merge black schools with white colleges under white administrators.

* Whether these colleges can revamp their offerings and facilities to attract white students in substantial numbers. Black public colleges were 15 percent white as of the 1978-79 school year, but these figures include campuses that are virtually all black as well as two that are more than 50 percent white.

* Whether they can attract enough black students from outside the South to diversify their student bodies.

* Whether enough public funds, as well as other resources, are provided to maintain the quality of education offered on these campuses.

Several options await black colleges in relation to the Adams suit, says Lorenzo Morris of the Institute for the Study of Educational Policy. One of these would be for as many as 25 of the 38 black public colleges to be merged with white schools.

Another possibility is for the colleges to change their images by adding new programs designed to attract white students. Or, lastly, the schools could try to retain their traditional black character.

Dr. Morris believes the Reagan administration will ease pressure on these colleges to integrate. "There will be no overwhelming charge for them to alter their approach," he said. "There will be no increased monie to help them change."

Secretary Bell indicated that he would not use confrontation tactics on the desegregation issue in a March 9 address to the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Association of State Boards of Education in Washington , D.C.

His office is willing to "return to negotiation with school districts" as best it can, Bell told the state officials. "The previous administration may have gone too far with confrontation too soon," he said.

Civil rights laws are "necessary, desirable, and very timely," he continued, but he prefers to avoid legal battles.

However, the scope of the Adams case reaches beyond the borders of the South. It also applies to Pennsylvania, a northern state which opened the nation's oldest college for blacks, Cheyney State College, in 1837.

Cheyney State, which has never attracted whites in substantial numbers, has been asked to increase its white enrollment to 10 percent. In 1978-79 only 3.2 percent of its 2,378 students were white, according to figures compiled for the US Department of Education.

A second black college in Pennsylvania, Lincoln University, is only 2.2 percent white -- but it is not named in the court suit.

In the Adams case, plaintiffs originally sought to have 10 states (Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, and Virginia) comply with Title VI of the US Civil Rights Act of 1964, requiring desegregation of state institutions of higher education.

These states were asked to abide by criteria originally set in 1969 and revised in 1978 by the US Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW). The guidelines now are administered by the US Department of Education.

Currently, eight states are still considered not in compliance with the court ruling.

The most practical solution, from the viewpoint of the states, is to merge black and white state schools located in the same city or very close to each other. Mergers between white and black colleges have been sought, but in only one instance has such a combination been completed.

Two years ago a US District Court gave black Tennessee A & I State University control in a merger with the newer, downtown, commuter-oriented University of Tennessee at Nashville.

Otherwise, black alumni have opposed mergers which would bring their schools under white administrations.

In 1975 a proposal to give the predominantly white University of New Orleans control over the New Orleans branch of Southern University was brought before the NAACP.

The NAACP did not place the issue on its agenda, but the antimerger view received a great deal of publicity. This dispute is yet to have a full hearing in court.

Meanwhile, North Carolina and Arkansas have reorganized all their state schools into unified university systems, including five black colleges in North Carolina and one in Arkansas.

In Montgomery, Ala., predominantly black Alabama State University filed suit in early March demanding administrative control in a merger with two white universities in the same city -- branches of Auburn and Troy State universities. The combined school would be 50-50 black and white.

Most black state colleges in the South were established between 1891 and 1899 , when 17 black land-grant colleges were established.

Funds for the black schools were authorized by the second Morrill Act of 1890 , only a few years before the US Supreme Court ruled in favor of a "separate but equal" doctrine in the Plessy v. Ferguson decision of 1896.

Black public colleges have never been "equally supported," says William Elton Trueheart in his 1979 Harvard doctoral thesis entitled, "The Consequences of Federal and Development Policies for Traditionally Black Land-Grant Institutions: 1862-1954."

"The trouble is," says Dr. Trueheart, now on the Harvard University faculty, "that most people suffer from a common malady, the belief that higher education is desegregated when every nonwhite institution turns into one that is white."

Since the civil rights upheaval of the 1960s, only three black state colleges have become fully integrated with more white students than black --Virginia, and Lincoln University in Missouri.

Bluefield has ceased to identify as black and no longer has a black administration. Including federally financed Howard University in Washington, D.C., the 36 other state colleges are overwhelmingly black.

"Advocates for the traditional black college will need a stronger, desperate defense, anchored by greater organization among blacks to maintain black control ," reasons Morris.

Miss Fairfax calls the whole legal issue "a golden opportunity for black colleges to be strengthened, to play an important role in higher education, to get opportunities they never had before. No numerical goals have been set for them. The real pressure of integration is on the white colleges."

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