Tennessee commits $318M to its only public HBCU, but does that compensate for decades of underfunding?

After a 2021 report from a state legislator revealed that over a period of decades Tennessee withheld millions of dollars in funding from Tennessee State University (TSU), the state’s only public historically Black college (HBCU), the state’s governor proposed giving the university $318 million. However, experts say those plans don’t go far enough to repair the damage caused by decades of underfunding.

A historic debt

Under the Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890, the federal government pledged to help fund land-grant schools, as long as states matched that financial support. Most land-grant institutions were created in the Morrill Act of 1862, but the second Morrill Act of 1890 established 18 historically Black land-grant universities, including TSU. Those HBCUs have not received the promised one-to-one state funding, according to a report by the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities.

The late Tennessee state representative Harold Love Sr. discovered that Tenneseee did not match federal funds for TSU; his son, Harold Love Jr., is also a state representative and is continuing his father’s work, spearheading a 2021 report that found Tennessee may have underfunded TSU by as much as $544 million in matching payments.  

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In response to those findings, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee has proposed allocating $250 million to TSU in fiscal year 2023 to upgrade its facilities, $60 million for a new engineering building, and $8 million for maintenance, totaling $318 million in one-time capital funding. State lawmakers have yet to approve the proposal.

Love Jr. responded favorably to the proposal, noting that “my father really wanted to make sure that Tennessee State University received the equal amount of funding that they should have received. To have his work be the foundation upon what this investment is being built on—I think, for me—I’m very pleased.” TSU president Glenda Glover also celebrated the proposed funds, telling the Tennessee Lookout that the money would not only fund necessary building repairs but would also “​​enhance TSU, directly benefiting our faculty, staff, students, and all Tennesseans.”

‘Is the damage actually $1 billion? $2 billion? 6 billion?’

But others say the proposed funds, while needed, do not make up for decades of state funding denied. “Equity is not just about giving an institution what it is legally owed,” says Royel Johnson, professor of education at the University of Southern California, “but it’s accounting for what is the loss, the impact of not having those resources.”

William Johnson, a professor at TSU, recounts how underfunding left the university unable to retain talented professors and staff. “We’ve had superstar faculty members” who left because of a lack of facilities and research support, resulting in an incalculable loss, according to Johnson. “The Legislature doesn’t want to hear this and certainly my institution doesn’t want me to say this,” Johnson adds, “but is the damage actually $1 billion? Is it $2 billion? Is it $6 billion? Who knows what the opportunities would have been?”

Those estimates might not be far off the mark. In February, Forbes calculated that from 1987 to 2020, the 18 land-grant HBCUs “were underfunded by an aggregate of $12.8 billion, adjusted for inflation.” TSU received $1.9 billion less than it would have, had it been funded at the same per-student rate as the University of Tennessee, the state’s other, predominantly white, land-grant university. UT “developed a vibrant campus with hundreds of agricultural research projects” and “10 research centers covering 39,000 acres across the state.” In comparison, “TSU has just 600 acres devoted to agricultural field research. The University of Tennessee spent $286 million on research in 2020, or more than $10,000 per student, compared with Tennessee State’s $2,000 in research spending per student.”

The result, according to Erin Lynch, associate provost at North Carolina HBCU Winston-Salem State University, is “an unfair playing field when our HBCUs are forced to have to use their own discretionary funds to cover costs that other state governments regularly give to primarily White institutions.”

HBCUs have thrived despite institutional underfunding, graduating 26 percent of all Black college students despite making up only 9 percent of four-year institutions in the states and territories in which they are located, according to the United Negro College Fund (UNCF). “Imagine what the economic impact could have been if they had been funded at the same level of other flagship institutions or other non-minority-serving institutions in their state,” Lynch says.

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