Every now and then, a politician will slip up and say something that’s true or based in reality. And like clockwork, pundits and demagogues clamorously enter the fray, demanding apologies while assuring their followers that the politician’s “gaffe” is both spurious and disgraceful, and that two multiplied by two does not equal four.
A similar set of events unfolded recently after South Carolina’s Republican comptroller, Richard Eckstrom, commented on the Palmetto State’s sole public historically black university, South Carolina State University.
SC State is struggling financially. Its regional accrediting body placed it on warning because of governance and debt issues. The situation became so dire that school officials made a $13.6 million loan request to Governor Nikki Haley and the state’s Budget and Control Board to help pay off bills accruing since last October.
During a recent meeting regarding the loan request (the board ended up granting SC State $6 million; the remaining $7.6 million will have to come from legislative appropriations), some board members suggested that the school could bring in additional funds by more vigorously collecting student debt. Eckstrom, the state’s chief accountant, disagreed, saying that SC State caters to a “student body that doesn’t have the ability to bail the university out. These are not kids coming from wealthy parents. These are kids that are going there because they can’t get into these other schools.”
The SC State supporters in attendance groaned with disapproval. But Eckstrom’s statement, though perhaps rough around the edges, wasn’t incorrect. It’s no secret that students attending non-elite HBCUs tend to come from low-income households and lack the academic preparation possessed by students at other universities. At any rate, Eckstrom’s most controversial comment came later in the meeting:
I’m committed to the university because it’s a university, not because it’s a historically black university. I think the sooner this state gets away from the concept of talking about historically black universities is a step forward for this state…We no longer talk about historically white universities. I think we need to deal with the issues of funding needs at South Carolina State because it’s an institution of higher learning.
The state’s legislative black caucus called on Eckstrom to apologize. One Democratic legislator called the comments “uninformed, ignorant, and embarrassing.” Even U.S. Representative Jim Clyburn, who graduated from SC State, weighed in. Clyburn said that, during his youth, the university was the only one in South Carolina that accepted blacks.
Clyburn is right; there was certainly a time when many blacks were shut out of higher education and when HBCUs provided the only path to a college education. But that time has long passed. Today, more than 90 percent of black students attend non-HBCUs - a sign that such students are being accepted in large numbers by “predominantly white” institutions.
Freedom of association, not state-sanctioned racial isolation, should be the name of the game. If a private college wants to serve one segment of the population, that’s fine. But it’s high time that we rethink the legitimacy of publicly supported HBCUs. Increasingly, such institutions seem both anachronistic and unnecessary.