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Fate of Miss. college in court's hand; black colleges throughout the nation await Ayers decision.

The computer facilities at Mississippi Valley State University in Itta Bena are, by most everyone's estimation, below par.

An MVSU professor recently testified that the school's library was so inadequate that he felt uncomfortable assigning research papers.

Just about everyone involved in what is known as the Ayers case agrees that this is no way to fund a college. But they can't agree on a solution.

Mississippi officials, under U.S. Supreme Court order to address discrepancies in funding the state's black and white colleges, want to merge MVSU with predominately white Delta State University in nearby Cleveland, Miss. However, the plaintiffs in the case, which include the Justice Department, want the state to upgrade MVSU, making it more attractive to both black and white students.

U.S. District Judge Neal Biggers Jr. in Oxford, Miss., finished hearing testimony in the case in July and gave both sides until mid-October to submit written final arguments. A decision in the case, which could come as early as this month, could affect the future of state-funded historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in 18 other states.

"There are a number of states that would like to merge black colleges with white ones, or submerge them underneath them," says Samuel L. Myers, president of the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education in Washington, D. C., which represents 117 HBCUs. "We know they're waiting [for the court's decision]. This could have a ripple effect."

Some black educators believe defeat in this case would send the message that black colleges are of less value than white schools. It would also signal that an acceptable way of addressing years of underfunding black colleges is to eliminate them by merging them with white colleges.

"I'm alarmed that they're saying the black college should merge with the white college, instead of saying the white college should merge with the black one, or that the black college should be upgraded," says William H. Gray III, president and CEO of the United Negro College Fund. UNCF schools will not be directly affected by the decision because they are privately funded.

Ironically, Mississippi's merger plan is an outgrowth of a 1975 court case in which the father of a black college student, Jake Ayers, sued the state for not funding its black colleges at the same level of its white schools. In 1992, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the state and ordered it to address the inequities.

That victory was short-lived, as Mississippi officials announced they planned to correct the problem by merging MVSU with DSU at the latter's campus. The merged school would be called Delta Valley University. While both sides await a decision, the fall semester at MVSU began in mid-August as planned. "It's certainly something that you think about, but it's not a debilitating point," says Roy Hudson, Ph.D., MVSU vice president, who doesn't expect a quick settlement.

Hudson refused to speculate on the future of MVSU students or faculty if the merger plan is approved.

"We will not preside over or participate in the destruction of Mississippi Valley," Hudson says. "We serve the poorest people in the poorest area in the poorest state. We are trying to break the [poverty] cycle."
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Title Annotation:Mississippi Valley State University, Itta Bena, Mississippi, Jack Ayers
Author:Lowery, Mark
Publication:Black Enterprise
Date:Nov 1, 1994
Words:539
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