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Senators Discuss Ways To Make Decisions On HBCUs More Inclusive

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Gwendolyn Glenn
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WFAE News

Three North Carolina historically black colleges and universities are no longer included in Senate legislation that would have reduced student tuition to $500 a semester. HBCUs and their alumni strongly opposed the plan. Sen. Tom Apodaca, announced his decision late Wednesday but it still sparked a lot of discussion on the floor Thursday.

Senator Tom Apodaca says his motivation in introducing the bill was to make education more affordable.

"It sounded wonderful to me but a lot of people didn’t agree, good Lord,” Apodaca said. “I’ve had protests on the lawn of the state house and people came to my office to say how bad this bill is. I had a death threat come into my office.”

So, Apodaca offered an amendment that removed three HBCUs included in his plan to make tuition $500 a semester in hopes of increasing enrollment. It passed 42 to 6. Some senators said they felt the legislation was met with such opposition because it was Republican-sponsored. Senator Gladys Robinson is a Democrat and HBCU graduate who favored the plan.

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Credit NC General Assembly
Sen. Tom Apodaca sponsored legislation that would have reduced tuition at three HBCUs and two other NC System Schools. The legislation was amended to delete the HBCUs.

“I recognize the plight of the universities in the state and will fight first to keep them from closing but we have to do some things to sustain them and partisanship has kept us from bridging the divide this time,” Robinson said. “I’m saying to Republicans and Democrats, we have to find a better way to support the good of the whole.”

Other senators believe the bill struck such a nerve with many HBCU alumni because at one point it suggested that the HBCUs names might need to be changed to boost enrollment and attract more diverse applicants. This is an issue that has come up in the past and one that Senator Don Davis says makes the schools feel picked on.

“Some of this, we have to look at ourselves to create the situation,” Davis said. “Let’s be real, if we had an amendment to say we’ll study closing UNC Chapel Hill or study changing the name of NC State, it’s not going anywhere, but we loosely and casually have conversations about closing and changing the names of other institutions.”

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Credit Gwendolyn Glenn / WFAE News
Jordan Adams, a senior at Winston-Salem State is concerned that legislators want to change the character of HBCUs

Those opposing the plan didn’t seem to think that Apodaca’s bill was not intended to sabotage HBCUs. They said the outrage arose partly because the legislation took the schools and their alumni off guard. Senator Floyd McKissick said, “I think the problem is one of inclusion. Rather than at the back end, having the chancellors of those schools brought into a room to sit down, it should have been done before that bill was filed, to solicit feedback. I suspect had that occurred, we would have seen a modified version of SB873, that didn’t include name changes.”

At Winston-Salem State, the legislation was the topic of discussion in the cafeteria and classrooms. Students like senior Jordan Adams were concerned that the legislation could have changed the character of the school.

“It possibly couldn't be an HBCU anymore,” Adams said. “When I came here it was an HBCU and I think it should remain an HBCU. One of my professors told me she believes a lot of the professors would leave if they changed the name of the institution or made the institution not an HBCU anymore."

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Credit Gwendolyn Glenn / WFAE News
Dr. Lynette Wood, chair of Winston-Salem State University's accounting department

Accounting department chair Dr. Lynette Wood says the fact that the future of North Carolina’s HBCUs keeps coming up in negative ways, makes faculty retention a real concern.

“Will our good faculty leave, thinking I don’t know what will happen in a few years,” Wood said. “If I have an opportunity at another university, I’m gone. Hopefully, I won’t be one of those faculty that’s going to jump ship. I plan to hang in for a while.”

Back at the Senate, legislators pointed out that more needs to be done to help the state’s HBCUs, such as Elizabeth City State, which was included in the bill along with Fayetteville State University. Western Carolina and UNC Pembroke are still in the plan. Senator Davis says enrollment at Elizabeth City dropped by 45 percent over the past five years and he blames past amendments to close or downsize the school for much of that decline. He and others say more discussions are needed on ways to strengthen the state’s HBCUs, with inclusion of the schools’ officials and alumni a critical component.