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When Oklahoma state Rep. Monroe Nichols (D-Tulsa) learned the state Legislature had underfunded Langston University, the state’s only Historically Black College (HBCU), by nearly $419 billion over the last 30 years, he wasn’t surprised.
“You can go anywhere in the country, and see that’s the case,” Rep. Nichols told The Black Wall Street Times.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Education sent a letter to 16 governors (Democrat and Republican) on September 18, informing them that their land grant HBCUs were all underfunded for decades compared to their traditionally White counterparts.
For Nichols, the Chair of Oklahoma’s Legislative Black Caucus and a candidate for Tulsa Mayor, finger pointing isn’t the answer. He wants to see the legislature and the governor come together to solve the problem.
“We have to stop thinking about it as this bill that’s due,” Rep. Nichols said. “This is an investment in people, an investment in the state that’s gonna make the state a lot better in the short and long term.”
First step: acknowledging the problem
An act of Congress, the Morril Land Grant Act of 1862, established federal funding for public research universities. Since Black students continued to be denied access decades after the Civil War, Congress passed a second version of the bill in 1890 that required states to provide a separate land grant college for Black students with equitable funding.
“Unequitable funding of the 1890 institution in your state has caused a
severe financial gap, in the last 30 years alone, an additional $418,986,272 would have been available for the university,” read the letter from U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona and U.S. Agriculture Secretary Thomas Vilsack.
Oklahoma Republican Governor Kevin Stitt acknowledged the problem.
“The Governor’s office is looking into it and discussing steps forward,” Gov. Stitt’s Communications Director Abegail Cave told The Black Wall Street Times on Sept. 20.
Meanwhile, Rep. Nichols said as legislators discuss how to fill in the gap in funding, it’s important to recognize the positive impact HBCUs have on the state.
Langston HBCU underfunding: Doing more with less
As a lawmaker, Rep. Nichols said “it’s our role” to restore equitable funding to Langston since the legislature is responsible for crafting the budget.
“I didn’t just think about the inequity of it. I thought about the fact that it’s a violation of federal law,” he said.
Meanwhile, Langston students feel disregarded by the state.
“I didn’t think that a school could be underfunded by that much money especially when we’re in a state with schools like Oklahoma State University and Oklahoma University,” Lauren Moore, a Sophomore at Langston University, told KFOR.
Notably, HBCUs have produced 40 percent of all Black engineers and 50 percent of all Black lawyers in America, according to the Thurgood Marshall College Fund.
Rep. Nichols said the lack of adequate state funding almost resulted in Langston losing federal funding for its agriculture department in 2021. Oklahoma wasn’t providing its required 50% match. The president of the university reached out to Nichols for help.
“We had to work really really hard to make sure they got to that 50 percent match,” Rep. Nichols said.
Famous Langston Lion graduates
Despite the HBCU underfunding, Langston has birthed some heavy hitters.
Oklahoma civil rights legend Ada Louis Sipuel Fisher graduated from Langston. Since the HBCU didn’t have a law school, she worked with national leaders of the civil rights movement to integrate the University of Oklahoma’s law school in 1948.
In addition, General Mike Thompson was the first Black man to lead the Oklahoma Army National Guard when he was promoted in 2014. A decorated soldier and battalion leader, Gen. Thompson was also one of the first responders to the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. He’s also a proud Langston lion.
“In a state like Oklahoma we could grow some real talent because we have an institution to do that,” Rep. Nichols said. “The fact that we’ve underfunded [Langston] all this time shows how little we think about ourselves.”
Seeking solutions for underfunded HBCU
The state legislature has convened for a special session beginning on Tuesday, Oct. 3. Since Gov. Stitt called the session with a specific focus on cutting taxes, lawmakers won’t be able to make allocations to Langston immediately.
Yet Rep. Nichols hopes that any tax cuts approved during the special session are targeted and don’t leave the state with the inability to restore funding to Langston during the next general session in February.
Rep. Nichols, like the rest of his Democratic colleagues, are open to cutting the state’s grocery tax, expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and expanding the sales tax relief credit.
“There is some room to do some things,” Rep. Nichols said, but he warns that cutting the state corporate tax would negatively impact schools across the state.
Meanwhile, students at Langston have called the nearly $419 billion underfunding “institutional racism.”
“I just feel like it goes into institutional racism, you know,” Langston student Davian Wilson told KFOR. “My dad went here, my step-mom went here, my aunt went here, my great-grandfather went here. So just looking back it is easy to see that they have some things they need to fix.”
Ultimately, Rep. Nichols believes the problem presents an opportunity for lawmakers to do the right thing in a bipartisan manner. The state is currently sitting on billions of dollars in savings.
“And those students that you talked about, who rightfully feel like they’re a victim of institutional racism, imagine what happens when they feel like they have a stake in the state of Oklahoma,” Rep. Nichols said. “And feel like this is a state that wants them here. Imagine what they’re gonna accomplish over the course of their lifetime. Imagine what that means for the rest of us living here.”