Editorial, Tuesday, April 27, 1999

CATEGORY: EDT Editorials

AUTHOR: JOER

Editorial, Tuesday, April 27, 1999

Twenty-four years ago, when the late Jake Ayers filed a lawsuit in federal court claiming Mississippi treated its historically black universities unequally and demanded corrective action few people acknowledged its implications.

Last week, U.S. District Judge Neal Biggers ordered the state College Board to get ready for a new round of hearings to check on compliance with the broad and far-reaching ruling he made to upgrade Alcorn State University, Mississippi Valley State University and Jackson State University. Biggers’ order was given after the U.S. Supreme Court, in 1992, agreed with the Ayers’ plaintiffs that Mississippi, in fact, operated a segregated university system.

Biggers ordered the College Board and, by relationship, the Legislature, to establish endowments for the three historically black schools, improve the buildings and equipment at the three schools, and to ensure that admissions policies are non-discriminatory, including those of historically white institutions.

The state has spent, so far, $50 million (not including $3.4 million for lawyers’ fees) in seeking compliance with Biggers’ order. All parties agree that the job isn’t finished, but there is an array of disagreement about how compliance can and should be reached. This year, the College Board brought complications on itself with a decision to create and fund a four-year, non-resident branch of the University of Southern Mississippi on the Gulf Coast. The Ayers plaintiffs almost immediately sought to block implementation of that action, claiming it endangered compliance with the Ayers order and presented a potential new class of discrimination. Biggers put the so-called “ninth university” on hold pending a review of its admissions policies and the implications for systemwide desegregation.

Senate Universities and College Chairman Hillman Frazier of Jackson commented last week that Biggers appears to be creating pressure for both sides to bring the case to closure. We hope that is the case.

The failure to resolve the Ayers case divides the College Board and the eight tax-supported universities among themselves. Divisions that exist more-or-less naturally along lines of personal loyalty and affinity among College Board members are exacerbated by the inseparable issues of desegregation and race. The universities themselves, which always compete for state revenues, cannot cooperate as they should with the Ayers case hanging over them.

The Ayers case has become a moving target like the elusive southeastern average salary for public school teachers in Mississippi. The Ayers lawsuit, however, will not necessarily produce the same kind of good as striving for higher salaries. All the parties in Ayers need to hammer out an agreement, within the context of Biggers’ ruling, by which the case can be brought to closure.

An agreement requires both initiative and self-restraint by all parties. The College Board must rein in impulses to set out on expensive new ventures until Ayers is off the table.

All eight universities have learned hard lessons in the 24 years of litigation. Missions have been refined and sharpened. The process of prioritizing has been improved.

Yet, no one has been able to do what is ultimately necessary agree on specific criteria by which Ayers can be retired to the files.

Settlement wouldn’t eliminate the necessity of vigilance to ensure that all resources and goals are appropriately apportioned among the eight schools. The creation of eight universities explicitly commits the state to adequately supporting those schools.

A closure of the Ayers case would allow the universities and the College Board to pursue that support with a more unified voice to the benefit of every student.

Editorial 2

Big Brothers/Big Sisters in Lee County matches volunteer mentors with at-risk children, and the results achieved for the children’s betterment are impressive.

State and federal sources, for the second year, have recognized Big Brothers/Big Sisters’ success with a $19,000 grant to help the organization expand its services.

The School Time Friends program produced academic improvement in 71 percent of participating students, and parents said 50 percent of those same students also get along better with their peers.

The second point relating better to age peers means the children are learning how to get along better with the kids around them, to become friends and sustain friendships. Those character traits, in light of tragedy in places like Pearl and Littleton, become immeasurably valuable.

Sixty-four of the 214 children in the program aren’t matched with volunteers, so wonderful opportunities await adults willing to undergo training and evaluations and become a friend.

Call 841-5741 for information about Big Brothers/Big Sisters and the opportunities available to help children.