As Ayers settlement winds down, anxiety escalates at universities

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Gil Ford Photography

Sen. John Horhn

As funding from the landmark Ayers case settlement diminishes and state funding declines, Mississippi’s three predominantly black public universities face a fiscal crisis.

On Tuesday, state Sen. John Horhn, D-Hinds, other legislators, representatives from the Institutions of Higher Learning and school officials discussed the dilemma facing Jackson State University, Alcorn State University and Mississippi Valley State University and agreed to push for additional appropriations for the schools during the 2018 legislative session. Horhn proposed a bill that would give the schools $8.5 million for the next four fiscal years.

In a 2002 federal court settlement of a lawsuit filed in 1975 by Jake Ayers Jr. and other students, who accused Mississippi of operating an unequal system of higher education, a $70 million publicly funded endowment was conceived to benefit the three predominantly black schools. The settlement also included a privately funded $35 million endowment. The IHL board of trustees committed to raise the $35 million within seven years.  Currently, the private endowment is worth only $1,035,600.

“The private endowment is a tough uphill battle,” said Dr. Glenn Boyce, IHL commissioner. “Folks want to give to the school, not IHL.”

The universities only receive the interest on the money given to the private endowment for programming, making directly contributing to the schools’ foundations more attractive to donors.

“We don’t have a prescribed donor base. We don’t want to pull from (the university) donor base,” said Kerri Paul, IHL director of development and community relations.

Dr. Alfred Rankins Jr., Alcorn State University president

As the Ayers settlement approaches its end date in 2022, the schools are receiving progressively lower funding.

“The Ayers funds have been every helpful to Alcorn,” said university President Alfred Rankins Jr. “But historically the intent of the settlement was to enhance (historically black colleges and universities) with additional dollars to help them ‘catch-up’ to account for decades of under-funding. When you get those funds but at the same time your base funds are not being enhanced, Ayers now is being used to supplant what’s not given by the state.”

The settlement stipulated that Alcorn State University and Mississippi Valley State University each receive 28.3 percent of the endowment, with 43.4 percent going to the larger Jackson State University. To date, the schools together have received $65 million from the public endowment. In fiscal year 2019, the Ayers Endowment Trust will make the final deposit of $5 million. The schools have received $245,831 from the private endowment.

The settlement stipulates that when the three schools bring their non-black enrollments to at least 10 percent for three consecutive years, the university determines how the principal generated from the endowment funds will be invested.

Alcorn and Jackson State have met the 10 percent requirement; Valley has not.

Therefore, Valley’s allocations will be dispersed under the control of the Ayers Endowment Management committee, which is comprised of trustees appointed by the IHL board president, the commissioner and the presidents of the three universities.

“We are continuously looking at initiatives to bring in other race students, but the challenge is where we are located in the Mississippi Delta,” said La Shon Brooks, Valley’s chief of staff and legislative liaison.

“It’s getting to a point where our employees will be affected if we don’t have something to take the place of the funds that’ll go away,” added Brooks.