New 'Fordice' Report May Benefit Mississippi HBCUs (Ayers V. Fordice, Historically Black Colleges and Universities)

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Jackson, Miss. -- The new report is 400 pages and 100,000 words -- one of the bulkiest in memory -- and is touted as a reaffirmation of the importance of the nation's historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs).

Further Desegregation of Higher Education in the Mississippi Delta proposes a plan that would move Mississippi further from its racially separatist past and into a more diverse, racially inclusive future. It was produced as a result of one of the longest-running college desegregation cases in the nation -- Ayers v. Fordice -- by the Board of Trustees of State Institutions of Higher Learning.

James Lyons, the president of Jackson State University, one of Mississippi's eight HBCUs, called the study, which was released last month, a "good foundation on which to build.... What we've done here today is to reaffirm the importance of the nation's historically African American universities."

Ayers v. Fordice is a twenty-three-year-old case in which the late Jake Ayers Sr. filed a lawsuit -- on behalf of his son and almost two dozen other Black Mississippi students -- that sought to end the state's racially motivated dual system of education. In 1992, six years after the elder Ayers's death, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed that Mississippi's dual system of education was unfair and something had to be done about it.

One of the report's proposals calls for putting more money into the state's HBCUs in an attempt to make them more attractive to students of all colors. In particular, the study recommends the establishment of a college of engineering at Jackson State, which will also offer doctoral programs in business, social work, and urban and regional development.

"Jackson [State] is one of the few capital cities or metropolitan regions of its size that fails to offer an engineering program to citizens of the region," the report states. "An engineering program is critical to [the] enhancement of Jackson [State]'s ability to attract and retain business and industry."

Thomas Layzell, Mississippi's commissioner of higher education, said he likes the idea of a college of engineering, but noted that it could cost as much as $9 million over a six- to ten-year period to get the college going. That money would have to first be approved by the state's legislature, a historically tight-fisted group that responds suspiciously to public spending.

"We anticipate the legislature will be responsive to us," Layzell said hopefully.

But Charles Young, the chairman of the Mississippi House of Representative's Committee on Universities and Colleges, thinks that the $9 million price tag may be a hard sell.

"There are members [of the legislature] who are going to be more concerned about spending that kind of money than anything else," he predicts. …