The threats to close South Carolina State and Elizabeth City State universities demonstrate the financial struggles endured by all historically black colleges and universities, panelists at a black-college forum at Winston-Salem State University said Thursday.
“There is nothing less than our human existence at stake here with our HBCUs,” said Corey Walker, the dean of WSSU's College of Arts, Science, Business and Education.
Walker was among the panelists who participated in the 2014 N.C. HBCU Political Action Summit at WSSU. About 120 people attended the panel discussion about HBCUs in the Reaves Student Activity Center at WSSU.
The panelists mentioned the financial troubles at South Carolina State University, the only state-supported HBCU in that state. A committee in the S.C. House recommended on Tuesday to close SCSU for two years while the state of South Carolina pays off the university’s debt, so it can reopen financially stable.
SCSU has an enrollment of 3,000 students and owes $10 million to food and maintenance vendors, according to news reports. Its enrollment has decreased by more than 33 percent since 2007.
Some HBCUs’ reliance on state money means they are vulnerable to state budget cuts, said panelist Melissa Harris-Perry, who is a political-science professor at Wake Forest University and a TV host at MSNBC.
SCSU’s situation could happen at any other HBCU, said Ayana Davis-Hernandez, a panelist and the associate vice chancellor of university relations at N.C. Central University in Durham.
“Any HBCU that is threatened with closure should be troubling for everyone,” Davis-Hernandez said. “It’s definitely a wake-up call.”
Douglas A. Wilson, a panelist and the chief executive officer of Wilson Consulting LLC in Charlotte, pointed to an effort last year in the N.C. General Assembly to close Elizabeth City State University, a HBCU in northeastern North Carolina.
The N.C. Senate eventually removed a provision in the $21 billion state budget that would have closed the school, whose enrollment decreased to nearly 900 students from 2010 to 2014.
“They (legislators) are always threatening HBCUs,” said Damika Howard-Wayne, an ECSU administrator who attended Thursday’s forum.
Most HBCUs are in Southern states where Republicans dominate their legislatures, Wilson said.
Many Republican legislators are indifferent to allocating state money to HBCUs or generally opposed to such funding, he said.
WSSU also has dealt with a dwindling budget. The university has a current annual budget of $87.25 million, but has seen its state allocation reduced by nearly $35 million over the past 5½ years.
Despite their tight budgets, HBCUs are important because they helped develop black communities throughout the country and provide African Americans with college educations, Walker said.
“Historically black colleges remind us of segregated history of higher education,” he said.