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UAPB professor responds to claims of state underfunding


The U.S. Departments of Education and Agriculture sent a letter to Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Monday, alleging the state has been underfunding the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. The historically Black university is said to have missed out on over $300 million in state funding over the last 30 years.

“This is real,” says Henry Brooks, a professor and coordinator of political science at UAPB. “And when you don’t have equality of opportunity, it's hard to find equality of outcome on the other end.”

The letter from the federal government references the Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890. Brooks says the government gave land for states to sell and use the money to establish schools teaching agricultural and mechanical arts. That’s why the term “land-grant colleges” is often used to describe schools that were built as a result of the Morrill Acts.

According to Brooks, there are 19 schools established in response to the second Morrill Act of 1890. The act was designed to give more funding to the original land-grant institutions, but stipulated that the schools would have to open admissions to people of color. Instead of changing discriminatory admissions practices at the original institutions, 18 states, including Arkansas, opened a separate land-grant college specifically for African-American people.

Importantly, Brooks says, the language of the 1890 act doesn’t clarify how much money each institution should receive. It allows for legislators to decide how funds should be distributed.

“It did not say equal, it just said ‘just,’” Brooks said. “It did not even say equitable, it just said ‘just.’”

But over a century later, the disparities between the 1862 institutions and the 1890 ones are still great.

Many of the original land-grant colleges have grown into flagship universities for their state: the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, for example, opened in 1871 as the land-grant institution following the first Morrill Act. The school now boasts record enrollment and is a driving force behind the rapid growth of Fayetteville’s economy. Meanwhile, the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, which began as Branch Normal College and was established as a land-grant institution in 1892, enrolls about 2,500 students per year.

Brooks says that HBCUs are educating Black Americans at a disproportionate rate to the flagship universities.

“We’re enrolling and graduating students at disproportionate rates,” he said. “And we’re doing so while still being underfunded. That’s across the board, across the United States.”

Brooks says if the state does implement a kind of repayment program, there’s no question that the funds would help UA Pine Bluff expand their ability to serve and invest in their students.

“It would do a great deal to help us build capacity to grow in numbers as well as programming, to reach Arkansans and the rest of the world.”

But Brooks is hesitant to say the letter will bring about any meaningful change.

Alexa Henning, a spokesperson for Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the governor is “proud of the rich tradition at UAPB and will continue to support the Golden Lions,” referencing the school’s mascot. Henning called the letter from the Education and Agriculture departments “threatening” and “politically motivated”.

“But two things can be true at the same time,” Brooks said. “This can be both politically charged and absolutely true and absolutely necessary.”

Brooks says the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff has had to apply for grants and waivers for federal funding in cases where the state has refused to match federal funds, such as the 2008 Farm Bill. The letter from the Department of Education acknowledges the needs that HBCUs have to address.

Brooks says the letter doesn’t mean the state is required to pay UAPB the outstanding funds, but he hopes it brings attention to how the school has operated without sufficient funding for so long.

“At this point, we’re not even trying to get ahead. We’re doing a lot of work with so little,” Brooks said. “The conversation can now happen as to what, if anything, do we do about it now.”

Maggie Ryan is a reporter and local host of All Things Considered for Little Rock Public Radio.