Tennessee State University president urges state to pony up $2.1 billion

Federal education, agriculture secretaries tell governor Black land grant university has been dramatically underfunded compared to predominantly white schools.

Pictured are the main gates at Tennessee State University in Nashville. (Photo: John Partipilo/Tennessee Lookout)

Tennessee State University President Glenda Glover is urging the state to follow federal recommendations and boost funding by $2.1 billion at the historically Black college to make up for a three-decades-plus shortfall.

A 2021 report found the state shorted the school by $544 million in matching funds for land grant institutions.

"That's no small sum, but then to have the federal government come out ... with $2.1 billion, that was an eye opener for everyone," said Glover, who is retiring from the university in June 2024.

Glover faced the threat of being fired in 2022 when state senators heard complaints about a student housing shortage amid a major increase in student scholarships.

Miguel Cardona, secretary of education, and Thomas Vilsack, secretary of agriculture, sent a letter to Gov. Bill Lee last week to notify him data from the National Center for Education Statistics shows historically Black land grant institutions set up in 1890 were shorted dramatically compared to predominantly white land grant universities such as the University of Tennessee created in the 1860s. Governors with Black land grant universities nationwide received similar letters.

Inequitable funding caused a "severe financial gap" from 1987 to 2020 of more than $2.1 billion for Tennessee State, the letter says.

Black land grant universities nationwide suffered a $12.6 billion disparity of funds, with the worst cases at Tennessee State and North Carolina A&T, The Washington Post reported.

"These funds could have supported infrastructure and student services and would have better positioned the university to compete for research grants," the letter says.

The university made "remarkable strides," and would be "better positioned" to serve students and the nation if "made whole" financially, the letter notes.

Considering the large amount of money the state owes the school, the state should address the "disparity" over several years in its budget, the letter adds.

Glover posted a copy of the letter on social media Tuesday, noting underfunding for Tennessee State is "highest of all HBCUs, and is critically needed for academic programs, housing and enrollment growth."

For two cabinet secretaries to write a letter to the governors takes the matter to a different level of significance, Glover told the Tennessee Lookout on Tuesday in a phone interview from Washington, D.C.

Lee persuaded the legislature to provide $250 million in additional funds to Tennessee State within the last two years for campus upgrades.

In addition, the school received $68 million for infrastructure upgrades for fiscal 2022-23, the governor's office said in response to questions Tuesday.

"Gov. Lee remains committed to working with legislative partners and community leaders to support the success of TSU and HBCUs across Tennessee," Lee's office said in a statement Tuesday.

But senators also criticized and threatened to fire Glover and the university's board of directors for embarking on an ambitious student scholarship drive — up to $28.3 million from $6.4 million — that increased enrollment by 1,600 students, causing a housing crunch for the university in North Nashville last school year.

Sen. Jon Lundberg, a Bristol Republican who chairs the Senate Education Committee, expressed skepticism about the letter Tuesday, saying the amount of money is "not credible."

"Unfortunately, I think they're using it as a political number. Was TSU underfunded? I believe it was," Lundberg said.

But the state's budget analyst projected the amount at a lower figure before the legislature followed by adding funding for the university in 2022, Lundberg said.

Glover, in contrast, said any report by the National Center for Education Statistics has "credibility behind it." She hopes to be a liaison between the federal and state governments to work on the matter.

"I hope we can put politics aside and think about the students," she said.

Glover is "not seeking exoneration" but knew she was "right" when she addressed the Senate committee a year ago and told lawmakers housing and enrollment needed to be separate, she said.

The legislature's land grant study committee found the state shorted Tennessee State by $150 million to $540 million in federal land grant matching funds over the course of a century.

The new figure takes in a much wider swath of dollars.

State Rep. Harold Love, D-Nashville, said in a Tuesday statement that besides failing to receive matching land grant funds, Tennessee State and other 1890 land grant universities never received large sums of maintenance and programs money. The Morrill Act of 1890 required states to end racial discrimination at land grant colleges or create separate but equal schools for Black students.

"Now we see how the funding sent to states with separate land grant schools was actually applied unequally and both the federal dollars and matching state dollars that were required by law never made it to the universities," Love said.

The land grant funds are separate from the figure the federal government calculated, and even the $2.1 billion is likely "short" of the amount Tennessee State should have received over the years, state Rep. Vincent Dixie, D-Nashville, said Tuesday.

"I think the governor needs to be very pointed and very aggressive about making up this shortfall," Dixie said.

Tennessee State has withstood a firestorm of criticism for mismanaging money, while being underfunded, yet continued to excel, Dixie said.

An early 2023 comptroller's report recommended Glover and the Tennessee State board be vacated and the university be placed under authority of the Tennessee Board of Regents, which governs two-year community colleges and colleges of applied technology.

Glover announced in August she would retire from the university in June 2024 after some 30 years, but officials said her decision had nothing to do with pressure from lawmakers or the comptroller.

Tennessee State is planning to build a new dorm on campus, but the extra money approved for the university last year can't be used for housing. The state approved two leases totaling $6.7 million for students to stay this year at two Nashville hotels after seeing freshmen enrollment increase by 300.

Read more at TennesseeLookout.com.

  photo  Sen. John Lundberg, R-Bristol, said the $2.1 billion figure cited by the federal government for the underfunding of Tennessee State University is "not credible." (Photo: John Partipilo/Tennessee Lookout)