Editorial: Not so sure about systemic racism? Head down to Ettrick

By most accounts, Virginia State University is experiencing a resurgence. Last year, the small land-grant institution in southern Chesterfield County admitted more than 1,700 new students — first-year students and transfers — a 53% increase from the year before. The uptick represented a 30-year high. The historically Black university, just north of Petersburg in the tiny village of Ettrick, is sitting on an $80 million endowment, which has doubled in the past few years, thanks primarily to a $30 million gift in 2020 from MacKenzie Scott, ex-wife of Amazon’s Jeff Bezos.

Cash reserves are flush ($43 million), and the campus is also growing, physically, at the fastest pace in VSU’s 141-year history — a new 30,000-square-foot admissions building, research and cooperative extension facility, improvements at Rogers Stadium and a 174,000-square-foot, $120 million commons building that broke ground last year.

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Students walk through the campus at Virginia State University in Ettrick on Oct. 20, 2022.

But for all the recent growth, VSU, which enrolls roughly 5,000 students, remains one of the smallest four-year public universities in the state, a fact that becomes clear when visiting the sprawling, suburban campus just off a busy commercial stretch of U.S. Route 1. On any given day, the well-manicured, 231-acre campus can feel like a deserted oasis.

As the state’s first public, historically Black college and university (HBCU) — it was established in 1882 as a collegiate university for Black students after the Civil War, a rarity at the time — Virginia State has always had to scrap for state funding. First, it was fear — educating Black people in the South used to be against the law, the concern being that enlightenment could lead to rebellion — which morphed into white supremacy disguised as conservative practicality: African Americans were dismissed as intellectually incapable of a proper education, so why bother?

So it was hardly shocking when the U.S. secretaries of education and agriculture sent Gov. Glenn Youngkin a letter Sept. 18 outlining funding inequities between the state’s two land-grant institutions — Virginia Tech and Virginia State — and seeking redress for a reported $277 million funding shortfall at VSU when reviewing data from the National Center for Education Statistics Integrated Postsecondary Education Survey (IPEDS) from 1987 to 2020. U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Thomas J. Vilsack, who sent similar letters to 15 other governors, point out that the disparity — just in the past three decades — has had a debilitating effect.

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“Virginia State University, the 1890 land-grant institution in your state, while producing extraordinary graduates that contribute greatly to the state’s economy and the fabric of our nation,” the secretaries wrote, “has not been able to advance in ways that are on par with Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, the original Morrill Act of 1862 land-grant institution in your state, in large part due to unbalanced funding.”

The Youngkin administration shot back Oct. 4, arguing that the federal report used faulty data to arrive at its $277 million figure. In a letter to Cardona and Vilsack, Virginia Secretary of Education Aimee Guidera says the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System used by federal officials “does not collect high quality, student-level data. Based on reliable data from state-maintained finance, accounting, and education systems, the Commonwealth has funded VSU well above Virginia Tech on a per student basis in aggregate, since 1994.”

What both datasets fail to capture, of course, is the real problem: the underfunding that occurred in VSU’s first 100 or so years of existence, a task neither is likely interested in tackling.

Politically, there’s a good reason: In the South, states did everything in their power to financially suffocate HBCUs after the Civil War. The Morrill Act of 1890 banned racial discrimination at the land-grant institutions in each state — the schools were established with land donations from the federal government, and specialized in teaching “agricultural and mechanical arts” to working-class people, primarily farmers. It also gave states the option of creating separate schools for Black people, instead of integrating. But there was a catch: While the government required federal funds be divided between the white and Black institutions in a “just” manner, it didn’t mandate equality.

Guess what happened? In states like Virginia, the former capital of the Confederacy, there wasn’t anything resembling equal distribution of funds. The white school, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, or Virginia Tech, grew by leaps and bounds; the Black school, Virginia State University, barely got a bite at the apple.

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It took 77 years for the federal government to even attempt to rectify the situation. In 1967, the U.S. Department of Agriculture began allocating research funds to land-grant HBCUs, but it was a pittance. It took 33 years for the annual allocation to grow from $1.4 million to about $100 million by 2000, according to a 2002 report from the USDA’s Economic Research Service.

The lack of institutional funding limited growth, hindering the ability of land-grant HBCUs to attract students, who generate the cash flow that’s necessary for hiring faculty, building academic programs and adding facilities for things such as research and student activities. Producing fewer graduates, who lagged their white counterparts in skill development and social mobility, also left the schools with smaller endowments. According to a recent study by Goldman Sachs, “public HBCUs have 54% less in assets per student than public non-HBCUs, while private HBCUs have 79% less than private non-HBCUs.”

Of course, HBCUs — both public and private — excelled with what they did have. HBCUs are almost single-handedly credited with creating the Black middle class in America. Despite every obstacle imaginable, schools like VSU found a way to survive and thrive.

“HBCUs have been really focused on their mission, which is to nurture talent,” says Susan Gooden, dean of the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University, which recently hosted a symposium on the topic. “HBCUs have consistently overperformed relative to financial support because there is that commitment to communal excellence.”

Rectifying the sins of the past isn’t just about reforming the criminal justice system, restoring voting rights or updating what’s taught in history classes. It’s also about capital appreciation and wealth-building — those who have access to it, and those who don’t.

So argue over whose data for the past 30 years is better, if you’d like. But all one has to do is visit both Virginia State and Virginia Tech to see more than a century of systemic, race-based discrepancies. Virginia State: 231-acre campus, 5,000 students, $80 million endowment. Virginia Tech: 2,600-acre campus, more than 37,000 students, $1.7 billion endowment.

Ask yourself: How much money — and how long would it take — for the HBCU to catch up?

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