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Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Mississippi black colleges may have been sold a bill of goods

Five years after a landmark college desegregation settlement was approved by a federal judge, only a fraction of a $35 million private endowment for the Mississippi's three historically black universities has been raised.

Getting control of the endowment requires the schools to maintain a nonblack enrollment of more than 10 percent for three years. So far, only Alcorn State University has met that benchmark.

No fundraising campaign has been planned, and state College Board members can't say when one will begin.

"It's going to be very difficult," said Ronald Mason Jr., president of Jackson State University. "Even though (the agreement) says (the College Board members) are supposed to make a good faith effort, it's really not clear what that is and they are very busy people.

"Candidly, I don't know of a lot of foundations or private donors who would be interested in providing resources to help fund the settlement of a lawsuit, which is really what this is," Mason said.

The private endowment and another $70 million public endowment are part of a $503 million settlement stemming from a 1975 lawsuit filed by the late Jake Ayers Sr. The money funds new programs and buildings at Alcorn, Jackson State and Mississippi Valley State universities. U.S. District Court Judge Neal Biggers Jr. approved the settlement in 2002. However, some opponents appealed. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the appeal in 2004.

The endowment fundraising is the responsibility of the board, and university presidents have said they will help.

University of Mississippi Chancellor Robert Khayat secured the first and only $1 million donation from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. It's unlikely Khayat will be involved directly in securing additional money for the project, given that his school will announce another fundraiser next month.

"Obviously, we would expect the College Board to live up to the agreement. I am (surprised). If only $1 million of the $35 million has been raised, it's obvious the board has not made it a priority," said 2nd District U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, a lead plaintiff in the case.

Predominantly white schools raising the money won't get the benefit of any of it. If black colleges raised the money, they'd get only a percentage of it. Mississippi Valley State and Alcorn State get 28.3 percent each. Jackson State gets 43.4 percent.

On the other hand, if the schools raised money for their own endowments, they'd fully control it.

Raising money has become commonplace in higher education. Sometimes fundraising efforts are announced complete with brochures and catchy slogans. Other requests for money are made quietly. Donations, large and small, are constantly flowing into university accounts.

"We're in the middle of a $50 million campaign for Jackson State, so if I'm raising any money on my own, I'm raising it for the Jackson State campaign," Mason said.

Jackson State has a nonblack population of 7 percent this year, so the earliest it could qualify to get access to the private endowment is the 2011 academic year.

If a new donor willing to donate to the fund were identified, Mason said he'd be the first to hop on a plane and make the pitch. Also willing to help are Roy Hudson, Valley's interim president, and Alcorn's interim president Malvin Williams, who said, "I can't give up my individual campus fundraiser."


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