Just a few months ago the nation watched in awe as Black students at the University of Missouri protested in response to a hostile racial climate on their campus. This protest set off a litany of similar unrest across the country in which college students have found comfort in expressing their opinions. Students at Albany State University are now among that number. As a native Albanian and a first-generation college graduate of ASU, I believe in the historic mission of ASU. For over 113 years, this institution, guided by its mission, has provided access to higher education for Black and non-Black students alike.
On May 1, 2005, I wrote an opinion piece in this newspaper entitled, “Albany can’t have two four-year institutions.” I wrote this in response to calls for Darton to be made a four-year institution. Post that conversation, let me go on record to say that I support the merged institution in Albany. I was ecstatic when it was announced last year that the merger would take place especially given the Chancellor’s word that “we are committed to continuing to serve the HBCU mission and building upon the mission to serve an increasingly diverse student population and community.” Never did I think the next step would be to omit HBCU from the mission statement. Thus, I am left to wonder what other surprises lie ahead.
Last week, students at ASU, in civil disobedience, walked out of a program in protest to the fact that HBCU was omitted from the newly crafted mission statement. I can understand why students who chose to attend ASU because it was an HBCU are outraged – they wanted to attend an HBCU. If we applaud Black students at Missouri for calling out racism and unfairness at their institution, we should not condemn Black students at an HBCU for fighting for their history to be preserved. However, on the other hand, there are those who feel that creating an inclusive institution “may” be hampered by placing HBCU in the mission statement. Both sides have merit, but now is the time to talk. How do we make this work in the best interest of students from both campuses?
The explanation given for omitting HBCU from ASU’s mission statement related to a review of the mission statements of top HBCUs, many of which had removed HBCU from their mission statements. A majority of the top HBCUs identified are small, private Black institutions which are not even in ASU’s peer group. The truth is there is only ONE example of a merged HBCU and Traditionally White Institution, Tennessee State University and University of Tennessee at Nashville. Even still, those were both four-year institutions. The ASU merger is with a traditionally White two-year institution. Present day, HBCU is in Tennessee State University’s mission statement. There are a number of lessons to be learned from their experience. But, there is a looming question — might the conversation currently centered on ASU’s mission statement really be about unsettled race and class issues so prevalent in the region?
We were promised a process that was both inclusive and transparent. Seemingly this has not been the case. If this was the case, how was a mission statement submitted and approved by the Board of Regents and there is continued unrest on campus? Was there not a campus-wide review period before submission? There should have been a deeper discussion from a number of groups, including alumni, before there was a vote by the Board of Regents. Further, there is continued rhetoric of the newly merged institution being 9000 students – becoming one of the largest HBCUs in the country. One of the largest HBCUs without mention of HBCU in the mission statement? What happens if Albany State’s student base chooses Fort Valley or Savannah State instead? What happens if Darton’s traditional base chooses Georgia Southwestern or another two-year campus? What then?
The truth is this, Albany can have an excellent university, but the newly created institution must be one where there is a welcomed discussion of the intersection race and class – issues that have long divided the community. We cannot be afraid to do so. Telling students, alums, and those supporting the old ASU to “get over it” is NOT the way forward. To not have these critical conversations would be detrimental to the future of OUR Albany State University and Southwest Georgia.
Ontario Wooden, Ph.D., is a member of the Albany State University Class of 2000. He is associate vice chancellor for Innovative, Engaged and Global Education at North Carolina Central University, an HBCU in Durham, N.C.