Ayers v. Fordice: An Update

By Faye McDonald Smith

Vol. 17, No. 1, 1995 p. 19

In our last issue, (Winter '94), we ran a detailed article about the twenty-year-old Ayers desegregation case of higher education in Mississippi. In March 1994, U.S. District Judge Neal Biggers, Jr. issued the much-anticipated ruling. Here's an update:

Neither the plaintiffs (representing the interests of Mississippi black students and black colleges) nor the defendants (representing the Board of Trustees of the Institutions of Higher Learning), can claim an outright victory from Judge Neal Biggers's March '95 ruling in the Ayers case. Both sides expressed a mixed reaction to the 188-page decision -- supporting some elements, while objecting to others.

The court ordered that the 1995 admissions standards proposed by the Board for first-time freshmen, should be implemented at all eight public colleges and universities. This ruling is perhaps one of the most disappointing to the plaintiffs, since attorneys for the black colleges have argued that due to a history of inferior elementary and secondary schools in predominantly black and poor communities, fewer black students would be eligible to enter any Mississippi college under the higher ACT standardized test score that the Board can now impose throughout the system.

The court concurred with the Board's proposal that, beginning in 1996, predominantly black Jackson State University will offer allied health programs, plus advanced degrees in social work, urban planning, and business. The court ordered the Board to conduct a feasibility study on establishing an engineering school, a public law school, and a five-year pharmacy program at JSU.

The court ordered the State to allocate special funds totaling $20 million for educational and facility enhancement at Jackson State, as well as recruitment and scholar-ships for white applicants; plus $9 million to historically black Alcorn State University for the Small Farm Development Center and an endowment trust for educational enhancement and racial diversity. The court also ordered the State to provide funding for an MBA program and capital improvement at Alcorn.

To the relief of the plaintiffs, the judge rejected the Board's proposal to consolidate predominantly white Delta State University and overwhelmingly black Mississippi Valley State University, citing that the relative success of Delta State in educating both white and black students, and the significant nurturing that Mississippi Valley provides to under-prepared blacks would likely be substantially mitigated under a merger. However, the judge left the door ajar for a merger, stating that if in good faith the Board decides that consolidation is the only education-ally feasible solution, the court would reconsider.

Judge Biggers also ruled against the Board's pro-posed merger of Mississippi University for Women with Mississippi State University, both historically white institutions. The ruling stated that the Board's theory of "sharing the pain" -- i.e., if black colleges are merged, then predominantly white colleges should too -- "... is an inadequate justification for so drastic a measure with practically nothing to be gained relative to the ends of desegregation." It also pointed out that presently MUW plays a major role in the desegregation process, since it has the highest percentage of black students among the State's majority white institutions.

In essence, the Court found that the Board's pro-posed mergers or consolidations among the State's eight colleges and universities would not resolve the core problem of eliminating the remaining vestiges of de jure segregation, and that the Board needed to address other matters -- unified admissions, coordination of community colleges, and more racially diverse faculties and administrations -- in order to fully desegregate its system and provide equal access to Mississippi higher education, regardless of race.

To some observers, the judge's ruling leaves many questions unanswered, and sets the stage for another round of contentious litigation. Initially threatening to appeal, the Board has since indicated that it will not embark on yet more costly litigation and will comply with the court-ordered remedies. Attorneys for the plaintiffs are in the process of deciding if an appeal is feasible. The judge ordered the establishment of a three-person Monitoring Committee to review court-ordered remedies, and the plaintiffs intend to ask the Committee to expand the decree in areas where they think it doesn't go far enough.

It is not yet clear what impact the ruling will have on several other states which are also embroiled in desegregation lawsuits.

Atlanta writer Faye McDonald Smith frequently covers education and business issues.