Southern’s Leader Calls Wants to Close Funding Gap

BATON ROUGE (Louisiana Illuminator) — The leader of the Southern University System is asking the Louisiana Legislature to address a funding disparity between the state’s historically Black and primarily white land grant universities that exceeds $1 billion. 

The gap was brought to the forefront of higher education funding discussions last year when the White House sent a letter to 16 governors, including then-Gov. John Bel Edwards, whose states have historically shortchanged their Black land grant universities. 

Land grant universities were established in the 19th century by states that received federal property to create schools with a focus on teaching agriculture, science, engineering and military science. The schools receive additional federal benefits, but states must match certain funds with state dollars — a requirement that has not always been met. 

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The Biden administration found Louisiana had funded Southern University more than $1 billion less compared with LSU, the state’s land grant institution with a predominantly white student body. LSU did not admit Black students until the 1960s. 

“I would ask this body to take action this year to immediately begin addressing that by increasing our base funding significantly and by addressing our physical needs,” Southern University System President Dennis Shields asked the Louisiana House Appropriations Committee at a meeting Wednesday where members were reviewing Gov. Jeff Landry’s budget proposal. 

In an interview, Shields said he has had conversations with Landry in which the governor acknowledged the disparate funding and told Shields he would like to address it. 

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A spokesperson for Landry has not responded to a request for comment regarding how the governor intends to handle the disparity. 

“Every indication I’ve gotten from across state government is they’re going to try to be helpful,” Shields said. “So I have some confidence that something significant is going to happen.” 

House Appropriations Chair Jack McFarland, R-Jonesboro, said he needed to know more details in Shields’ proposal before making a commitment to providing additional money. Anything with a price tag would take some work, the chairman said, adding, “It’s something we need to look at.” 

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The lack of  funding has meant that Southern has been unable to maintain its physical infrastructure, recruit top faculty and achieve a top research designation, Shields said 

Southern received a $5 million federal grant last year to pursue top research status from the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education. Its R1 designation denotes the school has “very high” research activity. 

If the funding disparity did not exist, Shields said it was possible Southern could already be an R1 university. It’s currently idesignated as R2, the next highest designation. 

“We’d certainly be in a different position,” Shields said. 

To be designated as R1, a university must confer at least 70 doctoral degrees annually and spend at least $50 million on research each year. 

Southern spent $11 million in research in 2021, according to the most recent data available from the National Science Foundation. The university has made progress in the number of doctoral degrees it has awarded in recent years. In the 2021-2022 school year, it conferred 21 Ph.D. degrees and awarded 42 in 2022-2023, a university spokesperson said.

Addressing the funding disparity is made more difficult by the state’s current fiscal situation. A 0.45% state sales tax is slated to expire June 30, 2025, the end of next fiscal year. If legislators opt not to renew the sales tax, it would cause a shortfall that could lead to higher education budget cuts. 

Landry has asked each state agency to look for places to trim the budget. McFarland started budget hearings for the upcoming fiscal years with a warning for state agencies: “Don’t come in here asking for more money when we have a $600 million deficit next year.” 

The history of land grant universities goes back to the Morrill Act of 1862. LSU was founded in 1860 and received Morrill land grant status in 1877.

A Second Morrill Act in 1890 established land grant universities in former Confederate states, which either had to admit students of color or establish a second land grant institution to serve Black students. Southern, which was founded in 1880, became a land grant school once the act’s second version was approved.  

Leaders of the U.S. education and agriculture departments have said inequitable funding of the 1890 institutions has “caused a severe financial gap in the last 30 years alone.”

By Piper Hutchinson

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