Miss. PEER looks at Ayers settlement

Published 1:00 pm Tuesday, October 27, 2009

A legislative watchdog panel this month gave a generally rosy report about how Mississippi is meeting its obligations in a decades-old college desegregation case, but a closer examination reveals flaws with a private endowment that has failed to reach its goals.

The settlement of the case in 2002 put an end to litigation that began in 1975 when Jake Ayers Jr. filed suit with a group of other students, accusing Mississippi of operating an unequal system of higher education — one for black students, and another for white students.

Lawmakers put the settlement package together in 2002 but no money was allocated until the last appeal was exhausted in 2004.

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In the settlement, there was a $70 million publicly funded endowment and a separate, privately funded $35 million endowment. The private endowment has only $1 million.

Seven years after a federal judge signed off on the settlement, state officials agree there is no organized campaign to raise private money.

New Higher Education Commissioner Hank Bounds, in his response to the report by the Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review Committee, acknowledged PEER’s concern about the private endowment.

Bounds offered no solution other but noted that the College Board’s Ayers Management Committee annually hears progress reports on the private and public endowments. The committee has scheduled a teleconference for this week.

The public and private endowments are shared by Mississippi’s three historically black universities — Alcorn State, Jackson State and Mississippi Valley State.

The settlement stipulated that 28.3 percent each of the private endowment goes to Alcorn and Valley and 43.4 percent to the larger Jackson State. To tap into the endowment, the three schools were to bring their non-black enrollments to at least 10 percent for three consecutive years.

Scholarships, stronger recruiting and new programs attracted dozens of students from Russia, Canada, Latin America and other lands and allowed Alcorn State to reach the 10 percent goal. Neither Jackson State nor Mississippi Valley has done as well.

Once the universities obtained a 10 percent “other race” enrollment for three consecutive years, they would receive the endowment funds to be used for educational programs.

PEER recommended the state College Board offer strategies to the three universities for raising additional income.

“In the event that those efforts fail,” the report said, “the IHL Board should make recommendations to the Legislature on what additional efforts may be taken to foster interest and contributions to the private endowment.”

Sen. Terry Burton, R-Newton, says the private endowment was a good idea in 2002 and still is.

“The idea was that there were those who would want to contribute to make sure that we have adequately funded our historically black colleges, who would be willing to contribute to that endowment as they would any other endowment at one of our universities,” Burton said in an interview this past week.

Burton, who was chairman of the Senate Universities and Colleges Committee when the lawsuit settlement was reached, said he would expect higher education officials to come to the Legislature with suggestions about what it could do to help with the private endowment within the confines of the settlement.

Burton said legislative leaders have worked hard to keep the Ayers settlement dollars flowing regardless of economic conditions, which have prompted Gov. Haley Barbour to slash millions from the state budget.

“We’ve managed to stay pretty up to date, considering the budget shape we’ve been in since the settlement. That’s laudable,” he said.

Alcorn, Jackson State and Mississippi Valley will share $503 million. Besides the endowments, they will get $246 million for academic programs and $75 million for facilities.