Community leery of SB 873; chancellor comments

WSSU Chancellor Elwood Robinson

Community leery of SB 873; chancellor comments
June 02
00:04 2016

To Republican Sen. Tom Apodaca of Hendersonville, his Senate Bill 873, also known as the “Access to Affordable College Education Act,” is the perfect prescription for allowing worthy in-state students, beginning in the fall of 2018, to be enrolled in five UNC system universities at a reduced rate of $500 per semester.

N.C. A&T University and North Carolina Central University would get special state-supported merit scholarships to attract the brightest students, Apodaca adds.

The chancellor of Winston-Salem State University (WSSU), one of the five UNC system universities affected, supports the bill.

Chancellor Elwood Robinson says in a statement on the WSSU website:

“Since the bill was introduced, we have had many conversations with both legislators and UNC General Administration about what it means for our campus. These discussions have been highly encouraging. As a result of those dialogues, a provision to change the name of the university was removed.

“Additionally, a proposed cut to student fees was reduced. We are continuing to engage in conversations as the bill goes forward.”

However, to the members of the N.C. Legislative Black Caucus, NC NAACP, and especially alums of beloved smaller institutions like WSSU, Elizabeth City State University, Fayetteville State University, UNC-Pembroke, and Western Carolina University, Apodaca’s bill is just another sneaky way Republican lawmakers are trying to either close UNC schools with legacies of serving primarily communities of color, or at least rewrite those legacies, and with them, their histories and traditions.

Apodaca is an alum of predominantly-white Western Carolina University. The Charlotte Observer charged that WCU  “… is thrown in to disguise the bill’s racist intentions.”

“Sounds good on the surface,” wrote State Senate Minority Leader Dan Blue (D-Wake) on his May 15 Facebook page. “But read the fine print to realize that there are provisions in this bill that target HBCUs, with the Legislature tasked with evaluating an institution’s diversity standards.

Opponents point to language in SB 873 calling for “a study of the impact of each university’s name on the institution’s academic strength, enrollment and diversity.”

The bill would effectively legislate a name change for most of the UNC system’s HCBUs unless they can attract a more racially mixed student body,” charged Blue NC, a progressive website. “GOP members of the legislature aren’t looking to improve academics or diversity in the UNC system, nor are they interested in making college more affordable for students. They view the HCBUs as a political threat – they are institutions that have historically played a large part in civil rights actions, such as the lunch counter sit-ins of the sixties, and where awareness of minority issues is a key part of their contribution today.”

If not closed, opponents of SB 873 see at least the three small black schools being turned into community colleges.

Many UNC System HBCU supporters say there’s no way any of the HBCUs will be able to grow or sustain with a severely reduced tuition base. Without revenue from other reliable sources, like research grants, those schools will find themselves on the constant brink of closing.

Robinson expects the state to make up the shortfall.

“We believe it is essential for the state to provide the affected universities with funding to offset the lost revenue from tuition – as well as funding to support the anticipated enrollment growth – to ensure that instruction and student services are not diminished.”

But a letter from the UNC Faculty Assembly to UNC System President Margaret Spellings and several state lawmakers says:

“This legislation would essentially convert the minority campuses into inexpensive magnet schools for privileged and racial majority populations, with the net effect of displacing African-American and Native American students, thereby fundamentally altering the traditional mission of the four named minority schools.”

“We need to make sure we write, we call and we email,” Patti Sanders Smith, president of the HBCU Coalition of Pitt County, was quoted by The Daily Reflector, telling those attending a recent meeting last week.

“We don’t know when this bill is going to pass,” the WSSU alumna added. You know how [state lawmakers] are; they like to pass stuff in the middle of the night.” 

So it was no surprise that opposing groups organized quickly, holding a press conference at the state Legislature and rallying at the Halifax Mall in Raleigh on Wednesday to denounce the measure.

“This bill is classic underdevelopment. Once again the extremists use a false label to cover up the truth. This bill is not about making college more affordable,” said Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, NC NAACP president. “Instead it is an attack on HBCUs and minority universities that will drain millions of dollars from them with no replacement revenue. Like the extremists’ voucher and voter suppression schemes, this is just another scheme to further the extremist agenda.”

Last week, the Senate Legislative Education and Appropriations committees signed off on the proposed bill, but not before certain changes were made, like the removal of the diversity provision that could change an institution’s name.

Apodaca reportedly “promised” during the education committee hearing that the UNC System budget would see an extra $70 million-$80 million to make up for the expected tuition shortfall.

He also stated that, “We have no desire to close any of our universities in our system.”

Robinson said in his statement: “There is no doubt that Senate Bill 873 will have a tremendous impact on our campus. In many ways, this bill is exciting because it opens the door to a college education for many deserving students.”

Saying that he was getting a lot of concerned calls about the measure, State Sen. Paul Lowe Jr., D-Winston-Salem, proposed that the $500 tuition feature of Apodaca’s bill be tried out as a pilot program first, but the Hendersonville Republican refused.

“I have a lot of apprehension about this bill,” Lowe replied. “It has a lot of moving parts that make me uneasy at this point.”

The overall bill, if passed, would guarantee no tuition hike for any student attending a UNC System school if they finish in four years. It would also lower tuition to $2,500 for all out-of-state students at the five designated schools.

Chronicle staff contributed to this report.

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Cash Michaels

Cash Michaels

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