Gov. Bill Lee of Tennessee, a Republican, has recommended that Tennessee State University receive $250 million for physical-infrastructure improvements and repairs, to make up for decades of underfunding at the state’s only public historically Black institution.
If approved by the Republican-controlled General Assembly, the infusion of state funding would be the largest in the university’s 110-year history.
The proposal, unveiled on Monday, was part of a $52.5-billion budget request for the 2023 fiscal year that includes $1.2 billion in new capital projects for public colleges.
In his request, Governor Lee referred to the work of a joint legislative committee chaired by a Tennessee State alumnus that found that the state had shortchanged the university by between $150 million and $544 million since 1957. The funding inequities stem from the way that Tennessee, and several other states, has treated its predominantly white and predominantly Black land-grant universities.
The committee, chaired by State Rep. Harold M. Love Jr., Democrat of Nashville, found that Tennessee has always provided its predominantly white land-grant institution, the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, with a full match of the dollars received from the federal government, and sometimes more. But his committee could find no evidence that, from 1957 to 2007, any matching state dollars had gone to the state’s historically Black land-grant university, TSU.
On Tuesday, Love said he was “hopeful” that the “truly historic” budget request would be approved. “This money would provide adequate safety for students and bring the university’s infrastructure up to par with or above” that of other public colleges in the state, he said. The repairs and upgrades, he said, “will attract more students and faculty, and allow the university to make the case for expanding academic programs.”
Love graduated from Tennessee State in 1994 and has been researching the state’s higher-education funding inequities since 2014. Of all of the documents he shared with the legislature, one of the most powerful was a 1970 manuscript written by his father, Harold Moses Love Sr., titled Special Financial Needs of Negro Universities. The manuscript (right, in State Representative Love Jr.’s hand), published while his father was also serving in the Tennessee House of Representatives, found that “TSU requires a giant leap of funding” to make up for the matching state funds it had been denied.
The 1862 Morrill Act established a land-grant system in which the federal government provides money to universities for agriculture, engineering, and related disciplines. The amount has to be matched by nonfederal dollars, which usually come from state governments. States have generally fully funded the 57 land-grant colleges established in 1862.
That’s not the case for the historically Black institutions covered by a second Morrill Act, in 1890. The Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities reported in 2013 that, from 2010 to 2012, states provided less than a full match of federal grants to 61 percent of the 19 land-grant institutions established in 1890. That cost those institutions nearly $57 million in government money that they should have received.
As a result of decades of underfunding, Tennessee State faces hundreds of millions of dollars in deferred maintenance, said Glenda Baskin Glover, the university’s president. During an August visit to the campus, a Chronicle reporter found a computer-science suite vacant while faculty members awaited repairs to a leaking HVAC system. Peeling paint and plaster hung from ceilings and walls of other buildings, and faculty and staff told of longstanding problems with electrical, heating, and cooling systems. An agriculture center, shredded by a tornado in 2020, lay abandoned.
David K. Sheppard, chief legal officer and chief of staff of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, agreed that the governor’s proposal was a welcome start, and said he’s “cautiously optimistic” that the funding will be approved.
“It’s good to hear that the governor is committed to rectifying, in part, the State of Tennessee’s failure, over the course of numerous decades, to provide the requisite matching land-grant funding to Tennessee State University,” he wrote in an email to The Chronicle.
“That being said,” he continued, “I would note that in September 2021, the Tennessee Higher Education Commission specifically found that TSU’s five-year deferred-maintenance needs totaled in excess of $337 million and, prior to that, the state Office of Legislative Budget Analysis found that the state may owe TSU as much as $544 million in matching land-grant funding.”
The commission’s report recommended a series of infrastructure projects at TSU, including new dorms, a new engineering building, and campuswide improvements in the electrical system, roofs, plumbing, and lighting.
President Glover called the governor’s proposal “a crucial step in highlighting the state’s commitment to our infrastructure needs, but more importantly to our students.”
In a statement released by the university, she wrote that the budget recommendations, if approved by state lawmakers “will enhance TSU, directly benefiting our faculty, staff, students, and all Tennesseans. This is a historic moment for TSU and our legacy,” she said. “I am hopeful that lawmakers will help us build upon that legacy and be a part of it.”
The budget recommendations also include $60 million for a new engineering building. The $250 million for “strategic initiatives” includes infrastructure improvements, repairs, and building renovations. An additional $8 million is included for building maintenance.
Love said he was optimistic that, with the governor’s request, the General Assembly would approve the funding before the session ends, probably by the end of April. Last year, Republican legislative leaders acknowledged the legacy of funding inequities but said that any fix could take years to accomplish.
Sen. Bo Watson, a Hixson Republican who chairs the Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee, told The Tennessean last year that the university’s budget shortfalls were a longstanding problem that should be remedied, but he said they were among many state priorities. He did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the governor’s proposal.
In an email to The Chronicle on Tuesday, Sen. Brenda Gilmore, a Nashville Democrat, called the governor’s proposal “a great first step” given how much the university had been shortchanged since the 1950s.
“Although, certainly, very few of us were around during this time, to continue to ignore the inequities would have been morally wrong — now that it has been brought to leaders’ attention,” she wrote. On Twitter, she reminded followers that Love’s committee had concluded that TSU was probably owed more than half a billion dollars, and the governor’s proposal would cover only half of that.