TSU solution may hold loss as well as gain

Monday, March 19, 2001 at 1:00am

The 33-year-old desegregation case involving Tennessee State University is nearly over. Still to be addressed, though, are educational uncertainties and historical ironies.

Geier v. Sundquist was to force desegregation of state-supported universities. It demanded that universities truly be open to all races - even though that had supposedly already been accomplished. At one point, it called for a quota that would require historically black TSU reach an enrollment of 50 percent black and 50 percent white. Although the word "quota" is not used in the most recent court order to which all the parties have agreed, there are still steps aimed at making TSU more attractive to white students.

This is unsettling to many TSU graduates and supporters who are proud of the school's heritage as a historically black university. Some members of the Legislative Black Caucus are particularly dismayed.

In one legal response in 1979, TSU was required to absorb the University of Tennessee at Nashville. UT-Nashville was a predominantly white branch of a predominantly white state university. But the merger didn't balance the racial composition of TSU.

That surprised no one who had followed numerous court cases that challenged racial exclusivity in public institutions. Evident then, and evident today, is that, as a matter of policy, attempts to force racial balance don't always work.

The settlement calls for adding the Nashville School of Law, with its predominantly white enrollment, to TSU, still predominantly black.

From this affiliation, the private law school, which operates out of a small building with limited facilities, would have TSU's physical plant, library and other campus attributes to call its own. It also would have some $17 million in state funding with which it can pursue accreditation by the American Bar Association.

TSU, on the other hand, would get a law school, a prestigious academic addition to draw both black and white students. It would also get $10 million worth of needed improvements to its buildings and grounds, an endowment for scholarships and other perks in the $74-million settlement.

But what TSU might lose is some of its historical openness to first-time, traditional, African-American students.

Many of these students, because of social and economic disadvantages, are eager and able, but have been shortchanged educationally in rural and inner-city schools. TSU has provided remedial work that allows them to succeed.

One requirement of the court order is that admission standards across the board will be raised. If that happens, members of the Legislative Black Caucus fear it would shut out some of the freshman African-Americans whose backgrounds don't reflect their capabilities.

The trick for people proposing this plan is to convince powerful and entrenched members of the Tennessee legislature who also happen to be TSU alumni that terms of the settlement won't damage the institution they love. But as long as those powerful legislators insist that TSU remain predominantly black, that goal may be impossible to achieve.

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