Tuskegee's Time: 125th Anniversary Puts Spotlight on the University's Renewed Vision

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TUSKEGEE, Ala.

From its earliest years, Tuskegee University, known initially as Tuskegee Institute, navigated the higher education landscape with considerable skill. Shifting after its 1881 founding from a state-controlled teachers' institute to an independent, state-related college by the 1890s, Tuskegee qualified as one of the 18 historically Black schools named as an "1890" federal land-grant institution. It became the only private Black school to benefit from the 1890 land-grant status, which made it eligible for federal funding. From the 1890s through the early years of the 20th century, the repositioned Tuskegee prospered, as its famous founder, Booker T. Washington, proved successful at securing financial support from northern industrialists and other philanthropists.

"The genius of Washington was that he changed Tuskegee's relationship with the state of Alabama such that [the school] developed without undue restrictions ... He did it very carefully. He did not reject the state affiliation," explains Dr. Benjamin F. Payton, Tuskegee's current president. "Tuskegee is a very fortunate institution in part because of the quality of the leadership that established it."

In 2006, Tuskegee officials, faculty, students, and alumni celebrated the school's 125th anniversary, marking accomplishments that include the school's aggressive effort to expand science and engineering research and to produce African-American doctorates from its relatively new Ph.D. programs. Tuskegee is now seen as a modest-sized but effective producer of Black graduates in business, engineering and the sciences, an outcome consistent with the pragmatic vision Washington espoused for African-American advancement.

The past quarter century during which Payton has served as the school's president saw Tuskegee develop two science and engineering Ph.D. programs, establish an aerospace engineering department and become the site for a federally sponsored National Center for Bioethics in Research and Health Care. No longer an institute, the school attained university status in 1985. And more recently, Tuskegee has renegotiated its relationship with the Alabama state government to gain state funding increases at a level considered to more equitably reflect its state-related status. Annual state funding had fallen to a low of $2.5 million in 2004, but has increased to $10 million after Tuskegee's rap prochement with Alabama officials, according to Payton.

Tuskegee's focus on science and engineering education generated national news in April when U.S. President George W. Bush visited the campus and gave a speech on the American Competitiveness Initiative. The Bush administration's initiative has increased federal investment in research to ensure that the United States remains the world leader in scientific and engineering innovation.

Tuskegee officials say Bush's visit offered a timely endorsement of the school's recent efforts to meet national priorities while staying focused on providing opportunities for African-American students.

"It was important to have the President make use of Tuskegee [for promoting] the new national initiative for American competitiveness," Payton says.

"We've had more than a name change," he notes. "We began to place more emphasis on research and graduate education."

Dr. Shaik Jeelani, Tuskegee's vice president for research and sponsored programs, contends that the increased research activity by faculty that has coincided with the introduction of the new graduate programs is having a positive impact on undergraduates. From 1996 to 2005, Tuskegee's graduation rate increased from 44 percent to 48 percent, a rate that puts Tuskegee in the top 10 among historically Black schools, but well below the most competitive predominantly White colleges and universities. By not seeking aggressive undergraduate enrollment growth, Tuskegee has been vulnerable to gradual enrollment declines during the Payton years, a development that has caused concern among some alumni. …