Mississippi still has money left to spend from the 2002 settlement that was supposed to desegregate the state’s public universities, according to the budget presentation at the Institutions of Higher Learning Board of Trustees meeting Thursday. 

The settlement stems from Ayers v. Fordice, a 1975 class-action lawsuit that alleged the state of Mississippi was systemically underfunding Mississippi’s three historically Black universities, Jackson State University, Alcorn State University and Mississippi Valley State University. 

After nearly thirty years of litigation, the state and the private plaintiffs, led by U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, settled in 2002. Mississippi agreed to pay the three HBCUs about $417 million in additional funding over the next 20 years for capital improvements, endowments, and summer school programs. 

That money was projected to run out at the end of this month, but on Thursday, the IHL board members approved the additional allocation of funding, about $1.6 million, that the universities had not spent. IHL also allocated another $3 million in interest from an endowment that the settlement created, which the board will allocate in perpetuity. 

It is not clear why the funds are unspent; IHL did not respond by press time.

Ever since the lawsuit was settled, many advocates have maintained the payout was not enough to bring the HBCUs to a level playing field with Mississippi’s predominantly white institutions. Alvin Chambliss, the attorney who brought the lawsuit, didn’t want to settle, but the state of Mississippi cut a deal over his objections. 

Chambliss’s sentiment is echoed today by many HBCU alumni, faculty and administrators. They point out that as the HBCUs were receiving the settlement funds, state lawmakers were making deep cuts to funding for higher education. To make up for the loss, the HBCUs had to use the settlement funds as yet another appropriation, rather than a way to catch up to the PWIs. 

The wind down of the Ayers settlement this year comes as all eight universities are seeing an increase in state appropriations. This is mainly due to funds from the American Rescue Plan Act, John Pearce, IHL’s associate commissioner of finance, told the trustees on Thursday. 

This session, lawmakers allocated the universities about $176 million in capital funds to make infrastructure improvements and repairs, a 1,230% increase on capital funds appropriated last year. 

“There’ll be a lot of investment that’ll be able to be made in the capital operations of the institutions,” Pearce said. 

All eight universities are also seeing more revenue from tuition, according to IHL’s fiscal year 2023 budget. Every university but Jackson State has increased tuition the last two years, while Jackson State has seen increased enrollment. 

The tuition revenues represent “a real increase in the ongoing operations of the institutions,” Pearce said, adding that “this is all a strong increase.” 

Pearce added that this still doesn’t change the decades-long trend of state appropriations making up a decreasing share of the universities’ budgets. 

“Just for context, even though we improved year over year, we still have a change in the long-term funding of the university system away from the state of Mississippi and toward tuition,” he said. 

Excluding Ayers funding, the three HBCUs are seeing some of the biggest budget increases this year. After the University of Mississippi, which will see about an 8% budget increase, Alcorn State and Valley State will have the next highest increases at around 7%.

Jackson State is receiving the largest share of unspent funds and endowment income, according to an email from IHL Spokesperson Caron Blanton. Jackson State is receiving about $3 million, Valley State is receiving $1.3 million, and Alcorn State is getting about $300,000. 

Most of those funds are from an endowment created by the settlement. The settlement stipulated the universities could not control the income from the endowments until they reached at least 10% “other-race” enrollment. Until then, the income had to be spent on advertising and scholarships for “other race,” meaning white students. An ad hoc committee under IHL would be in charge of the endowment income for each HBCU until the university reached the enrollment requirement. 

Jackson State and Alcorn State met the enrollment requirement, but Valley State never has been able to, so the IHL committee still oversees its endowment income. 

As for the private endowment, the IHL board was supposed to raise $35 million that the HBCUs could also receive once they met the enrollment requirements. To date, it has only raised $1 million. The settlement contained a provision specifying that the board didn’t have to raise all the funds in order to meet its obligations. 

Molly Minta covers higher education for Mississippi Today, in partnership with Open Campus.

Higher education reporter at Mississippi Today in partnership with Open Campus.