Tennessee State University Gets Hostile Takeover

“By underfunding public HBCUs and denying the value of Black students on non-HBCU campuses, these extremists are making very clear the kinds of students they do and don’t want to succeed. They also are the same ones waging war on the teaching of our nation’s full history. But if we studied that history they seek to quash, we would know that the news out of Tennessee is just the latest example of conservatives rejecting the notion that Black people possess the capacity for self-governance.” – Gevin Reynolds

It’s a familiar pattern in right-wing political manipulation: Sabotage an institution. Point to the resulting damage as evidence of the institution’s ineffectiveness. Use the manufactured evidence to subvert the institution.

That’s what’s at play in Tennessee Governor Bill Lee’s hostile takeover of Tennessee State University.

Over the last three decades, the state of Tennessee has shortchanged TSU by a staggering $2.1 billion, according to a federal study. Unsurprisingly, TSU has faced challenges in maintaining financial stability. But instead of responding rationally by honoring its legal obligation to equitably fund the university, the state has chosen to dissolve the state’s board of trustees.

It’s hard to find a more blatant example of blaming the victim.

TSU, like other HBCUs, was created by state lawmakers in response to an 1890 ultimatum: admit Black students to existing land grant universities or create a separate institution. Federal law required “a just and equitable division” of funds between the two.

Yet year after year, in budget after budget, the state of Tennessee continually allocated more funding per student and more funding overall to the University of Tennessee-Knoxville than to TSU. In the last five years alone, the state has spent an average of $2,206 more per student at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville than at TSU, Nashville’s NewsChannel 5 found.

A study by the U.S. Departments of Education and Agriculture recently found that of the 18 states with historically Black land-grant institutions, only Delaware and Ohio have equitably funded their HBCUs in accordance with federal law. Overall, the 16 states have underfunded their HBCUs by $12 billion between 1987 to 2020.

“Unacceptable funding inequities have forced many of our nation’s distinguished Historically Black Colleges and Universities to operate with inadequate resources and delay critical investments in everything from campus infrastructure to research and development to student support services,” U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona wrote in a letter to 16 governors in September. “I am continually inspired by all that HBCUs have achieved despit having to punch above their weight.”

Despite the fact that the Tennessee legislature had previously acknowledged its own failure to comply with the law, Senate Education Chairman Jon Lundberg responded to the report by accusing the Education and Agricultural departments of “using TSU to stoke political and racial division in our state.”

Lundberg’s response is familiar to historians of the “Lost Cause” mythology that permeated the Civil Rights Era, falsely labeling those fought end segregation and secure voting rights as “outside agitators” disrupting the cherished Southern way of life.

The modern “Lost Cause” movement – known in some circles as “anti-woke” – doesn’t pretend that Black Americans are content to live under racism. It claims that racism doesn’t exist.

Similarly, the state of Tennessee’s solution to racially discriminatory funding of its universities isn’t to provide equitable funding; it’s to shut down any discussion of it.

Marc Morial is President and CEO of the National Urban League.

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