How Tennessee Got Away with Robbing TSU of Millions

A Brief History of the Underfunding of Tennessee State University

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Tennessee State University (Photo by: tnstate.edu)
Tennessee State University (Photo by: tnstate.edu)

Tennessee State University (TSU) has been in the news recently when it was reported that state budgets have shortchanged the Historically Black College and University (HBCU) by at least $150.5 million since 1956.

This news was shocking to many but should not be seen as much of a surprise. According to HBCU Digest, A lack of state funding for federal land grants and extension programs has cost HBCUs nationwide billions over the years. A 2018 report from the National Education Association’s Center for Great Public Schools showed that funding inequities continued for HBCUs in the form of waiver denials and federal budget cuts, in addition to states withholding matching dollars.

The question now is what does this all mean? To figure that out we must compare TSU to another Tennessee University.

Two schools with different state support

Tennessee has two land grant institutions, TSU and the University of Tennessee (UT).  Under the law, land grant institutions are supposed to receive matching federal and state funds. This means for each dollar of federal funding, the state is supposed to contribute one dollar of state appropriations.

The issue that has made the news is simple: Since the 1950s, TSU has not received the full land grant match to which it is entitled, while UT has always received the funds allotted. While the General Assembly has funded UT’s land-grant programs every year included in the study, the legislature only started including funds for TSU’s land grant programs in 2007.

What is a land-grant institution?

A land-grant college or university is an institution that has been designated by its state legislature or Congress to receive the benefits of the Morrill Acts of 1862, 1890, and 1994. Nationally there are 19 HBCUs designated with land-grant status, including TSU.

The original mission of these institutions, as outlined in the first Morrill Act, was to teach agriculture, military tactics, and the mechanic arts as well as classical studies so members of the working classes could obtain a liberal, practical education. The 1862 law did not guarantee access to higher education opportunities for African Americans. It was The Morrill Act of 1890 that established a land-grant university system of HBCUs in states where African Americans were banned from accessing public higher education.

A history of unmatched funds

The journey to understanding how to figure out the actual amount of money that the state should have been appropriated to TSU from 1956 to 2016 has been long indeed. While the General Assembly’s Joint Land Grant Institution Funding Study Committee was created in 2019 to look at how much the state owes TSU, it was actually committee chair Representative Harold Love, Jr.’s father Rep. Harold Love, Sr. who began researching the disparities in funding back in the 1970s.

It was clear then that the funding to TSU was not the same as UT. This was a slap to the face because HBCUs like TSU were founded because African Americans were not allowed to enroll in institutions such as UT. Over the years TSU “didn’t have the chance to maintain their buildings, give salary increases, or provide scholarships to students,” explained State Rep Love, Jr in a recent interview with Peacock TV.

The first challenge of the committee, made up of three House members and three Senate members, was researching the number of funds giving to both Universities. The research focused on a snapshot of 1956 – 2007. The numbers found in this report do not lie, for years TSU did not receive any of the state funding they were required by law to receive. The study shows that 2007 was the year that the state actually began funding TSU.

It was also proven that there is a current funding ratio of 8:1, meaning UT gets $8 for every $1 budgeted to TSU. This is where the amount of $150.5 million originally came from. With a more equitable funding ratio of 3:1, TSU has actually been shortchanged by $544.3 million.

What Now? 

Now that the committee has proven since the 1950s Tennessee’s only public HBCU has not received the full land grant match to which it is entitled (we still do not know how much money was kept from TSU before that time period) how does the state rectify the situation?

Rep. Love, Jr. now has to come up with a plan. His job is to send a general sketch to the Governor’s office on how they can help repair the damage that this loss of funds to the University has caused. While it is easy to ask for half a billion dollars, realistically that is not going to happen in one lump sum.

What the state of Tennessee must do is look at the areas that TSU needs to focus on right now. It is time to ask for things that the state cannot find a reason to deny. A focus on funding programs that help with the retention of the student body, increasing enrollment, and maintenance of campus buildings can be a step in the right direction.

Tennessee State University is a great institution that has given so much to Nashville and the state of Tennessee. Restoring the funding that it is owed is the right thing to do. Gov. Lee and the State Legislature must give into TSU the way it has historically giving to UT.
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