In the realm of drawn-out lawsuits, few in history could match the Ayers higher education case in Mississippi. Here was a lawsuit that was filed in 1975 and wasn’t settled until 2002, and then the settlement was appealed by one group of plaintiffs unhappy with it. The end didn’t officially come until 2004, when the appeal was exhausted.
Nearly three decades of legal sparring eventually resulted in the state agreeing to pay half a billion dollars over a 20-year period to redress inequities at historically black universities. Jake Ayers filed the lawsuit on behalf of his child, a student at Jackson State University at the time, claiming the education received there was inferior to historically white universities.
The basic thrust of the Ayers settlement was to help bolster academic programs and facilities at Jackson State, Alcorn State and Mississippi Valley State universities in order to attract more non-minority students and end what the federal courts had ruled were basically segregated universities.
A report released last week by the Joint Legislative Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review said the Legislature is on target in keeping its commitments under the settlement. Ayers funds have been exempt from recent budget cutting as state revenues have fallen far short of projections.
Mississippi is haunted by its segregationist past on many fronts, but higher education is particularly affected. This state never would have had eight universities were it not for its refusal for a century to allow black students to attend white-only schools. Now it’s politically unfeasible to close any university, and a system that has been hindered by duplication and inefficiencies through the years is forced to exist on perennially limited resources.
The intent of the lawsuit settlement to attract more white students to JSU, Alcorn and Valley hasn’t panned out. The minority enrollment at the historically white universities is now much higher than the white student population at the historically black schools. The state through the Ayers expenditures now finds itself in the ironic position of supporting and maintaining the vestiges of a segregated system in the name of integration.
But it has no choice. Payments in the court settlement must be kept current, and the hope is that the strengthening of academic programs at the three universities – whether it increases diversity or not – will in any case improve education for those students who choose to attend them. Providing the best education possible for every student in the Mississippi system is, after all, the ultimate goal.
Our state’s history has thrown obstacles in the path toward that goal, but Mississippi is at least making strides in overcoming the historical burden.
NEMS Daily Journal