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Desegregation Ruling Seen Spurring Calls To Close Black Colleges

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When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last summer that Mississippi had not rid its higher-education system of the effects of state-mandated segregation, civil-rights lawyers initially appeared to have been handed a landmark victory.

In the months since the ruling, however, the High Court's decision has emerged as a threat to the very institutions the case was fought to help--historically black colleges and universities.

In rejecting the notion that Mississippi could compensate for past segregation by providing more funding to traditionally black institutions of higher education, the Court appears to have spurred calls for more drastic remedies, including the closure of traditionally black schools.

The case could reach a turning point in the next few weeks, when a lower-court judge is expected to issue a ruling on a legal point that could help decide whether the traditionally black institutions continue their separate existence.

As Mississippi awaits guidance from the lower court on how to proceed, the governing board for its state institutions of higher education has stirred protests by proposing an overhaul of the state's higher-education system. The plan calls for merging Mississippi Valley State University, a traditionally black school, with traditionally white Delta State University.

In Louisiana, meanwhile, a U.S. District Court has cited the Supreme Court's opinion in reinstating an earlier order that the state merge the governing board of its historically black university system with those of three other systems and eliminate duplicative programs.

"Simply put, the dubious ideal of 'separate but equal,' whether endorsed by whites or blacks, is an anachronism that our society no longer tolerates,'' the district court said in issuing its order in December.

The High Court's decision, which was the first to address squarely the issue of the desegregation within an entire state's higher-education system, could affect more than a dozen Southern and border states that once operated separate postsecondary systems for whites and blacks.

'Separate, But More Equal'

In the Mississippi case, United States v. Fordice (Case No. 90-1205), the Supreme Court overturned lower-court rulings that Mississippi had met its burden to desegregate its institutions of higher education by opening them to students of any race. (See Education Week, Aug. 5, 1992.)

In its 8-to-1 decision, the Court held that the state also must show it has eliminated policies governing higher education that were rooted in segregation and may continue to have segregative effects.

The Justices rejected a suggestion by the black original plaintiff in the case that the state remedy past inequities by giving more funding to historically black institutions. In an opinion written by Justice Byron W. White, the Court said the state would not meet its burden to desegregate by perpetuating "a separate, but 'more equal' system.''

In returning the case to lower federal courts, the High Court called on Mississippi to prove there was no link between past discrimination and the current practices of its higher-education system.

The existing system includes five formerly all-white institutions that have remained largely white and three historically black universities that have remained mostly black since the state stopped mandating segregation in higher education 30 years ago.

The Court specified four aspects of the state system that were "constitutionally suspect'' and merited especially close examination. The factors were differing admissions standards for white and black institutions, the mission statements of the eight institutions, the duplication of programs at historically white and black colleges, and the continued operation of eight separate institutions when fewer may be needed.

If certain policies and practices were determined to have segregative effects, the state was given the burden of proving their continued existence was educationally justified.

'No Choice' but Consolidation

At the request of Judge Neal B. Biggers Jr. of the U.S. District Court, the Mississippi college board proposed a plan to remedy the vestiges of past segregation that included a call to merge Mississippi Valley with Delta State to create a new unit of the University of Mississippi.

The state's remedial plan, submitted last fall, also called for the Mississippi University for Women to become a unit of the University of Southern Mississippi, while Alcorn State, historically black, would become a unit of Mississippi State University.

Jackson State University, the state's largest historically black school, would be expanded under the plan, acquiring programs from elsewhere, and the state's only dental and veterinary schools would be closed.

"The college board had no choice but to take a hard look at the number of universities, indeed, at the system,'' William F. Goodman Jr., a lawyer for the board, argued in submitting the plan to the district court.

Alvin O. Chambliss Jr., a lawyer for the plaintiffs, argued against closing any of the eight universities and instead called for the state's junior- and senior-college systems to be consolidated to free up funds for other remedies.

'Devaluation Mentality' Seen

Robert Pressman, another lawyer for the plaintiffs, accused the state of "capitalizing on its own prior discrimination'' by seeing some black institutions as worthy of elimination because of inadequacies that, he argued, were due to the fact the state had not given them their fair share of funding in the past.

That point was echoed by J. Clay Smith Jr., a professor of law at Howard University who filed a brief in the Fordice case on behalf of the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education. Mr. Smith asserted in a recent interview that the decision to close historically black schools in Mississippi and elsewhere has been driven by "a devaluation mentality.''

The schools, Mr. Smith argued, received inadequate funding because they were black. Then they have been targeted for closure because they are inadequate for lack of funding.

The college board's proposal also has triggered sharp criticism from administrators and students at the institutions to be affected. Several black legislators have reacted angrily as well.

"It restricts education from those who need it the most, the African-American community,'' said State Rep. George Flaggs Jr., who responded to the plan by calling for the abolition of the board.

With the state of Mississippi, the original plaintiffs, and the U.S. Justice Department as intervening plaintiff unable to agree on a remedial plan for the state, Judge Biggers ordered the parties to submit lists of specific policies and practices they see as remnants of past segregation. The parties submitted the lists in November, and the court is expected to respond soon.

Meanwhile, a separate plan has been proposed by a 12-member citizens' task force appointed by Gov. Kirk Fordice, Lieut. Gov. Eddie Briggs, and Speaker of the House Tim Ford. That plan, announced in December, calls for the state to designate four of its universities as "comprehensive'' and four as "regional.'' Two separate governing councils would be created to oversee the redistribution of resources and the elimination of remnants of segregation in the two systems.

Louisiana Appeal Planned

In Louisiana, state officials are planning to appeal the district court's desegregation order, according to a spokesman for State Attorney General Richard P. Ieyoub.

The ruling was issued by U.S. District Court Judge Charles Schwartz in response to the Fordice ruling.

While not ordering the merger or closure of any colleges or universities, the ruling called for a merger of the four separate boards that now govern higher education in the state.

The current system has perpetuated segregation, Judge Schwartz contended, and caused a standoff between the governing board of the Louisiana State University system, which was formerly white, and the Southern University System, which was formerly black.

The new board ordered by the judge would be made up of 17 voting members and one nonvoting student representative. It would have the task of developing distinct missions and admissions standards for each of the state's universities, working to insure that students and staffs are integrated, and helping elementary and secondary educators prepare their students for the new system.

Clayton Lewis, the director of university relations for the Southern University System, said the system's board plans to appeal the district-court order in an effort to keep the historically black system intact.

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