Law & Courts

Mississippi Reaches Accord In Higher Education Desegregation Case

By John Gehring — May 02, 2001 3 min read
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Representatives in a long-running desegregation lawsuit involving Mississippi’s higher education system have reached a $503 million settlement that is intended to address decades of deliberate racial segregation in state colleges and universities.

Filed last week in federal court in Oxford, Miss., the agreement seeks to improve academic programs and facilities at the state’s three historically black universities-Jackson State, Alcorn State, and Mississippi Valley State universities.

The settlement was reached between the three schools, the U.S. Department of Justice, and Mississippi’s Board of Trustees of State Institutions of Higher Education.

U.S. District Court Judge Neal B. Biggers Jr. still must approve the plan. The class action was brought in 1975 by Jake Ayers Sr. on behalf of his son and 21 other students who argued that Mississippi maintained a segregated higher education system and funded historically black colleges at lower levels than the state’s five predominantly white institutions.

Judge Biggers ruled in 1987 that the state had done enough to desegregate the system. But in 1992, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the state’s historically black institutions were still underfunded, and that Mississippi continued to operate separate and unequal systems of higher education.

Under the agreement, the state would provide Jackson State, Alcorn State, and Mississippi State $246 million for new academic programs at the three schools over 17 years.

Some $75 million would be spent over five years on capital-improvement projects at the schools; $70 million would be earmarked for a publicly financed endowment; and $35 million would be allotted for a privately financed endowment.

The plan also calls for increasing the amount of financial aid for high school graduates attending summer remedial classes who otherwise would not qualify for regular admission to Mississippi’s university system.

Members of the board of trustees agreed to seek, and the state legislature is expected to provide, special funding of $500,000 annually for the next five years—and $750,000 for five additional years—to increase the amount of financial aid available for those summer classes

Reverse Enrollment

The state’s historically black universities would be required to maintain an integrated student enrollment under the plan. For at least three years in a row, at least 10 percent of their enrollment would have to be students who were not African-American.

The colleges would not have access to either the publicly or privately financed endowment until they achieved that percentage. The mandate has been strongly opposed by some plaintiffs in the case and some faculty members and students at the three institutions.

Officials at the three universities say they have spent millions of dollars to attract whites and other nonblack students, but have had a difficult time doing so because of the perception that the schools still are inferior to traditionally white institutions. More than half the black students who graduate from public colleges in the state now obtain degrees from traditionally white schools.

Faculty members, students, and alumni from historically black universities in the state formed the Mississippi Coalition for Black Higher Education last fall to push for what they would consider to be a more equitable ruling in the Ayers case.

The group has filed a federal court motion seeking to divide the plaintiffs into two groups, so that those who opposed the agreement would not be bound by the settlement if the federal judge approves it.

Among other issues, the group opposes linking increased money for historically black institutions to their ability to attract white students.

It also wants the agreement to change the governance structure of the state’s universities to make sure historically black universities are better represented on the state’s public college board.

A version of this article appeared in the May 02, 2001 edition of Education Week as Mississippi Reaches Accord In Higher Education Desegregation Case

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