Lincoln University fights for survival amid pressure on many fronts

The demographics of the Lincoln are not typical of HBCUs; 57% African European American and 47% African American

JEFFERSON CITY — Lincoln University is perched high on the hills above Missouri’s capital city, but the school is often overlooked by state government.

Lincoln, ignored by federal officials and state lawmakers, faces budget cuts year after year and must regularly reduce the number of faculty and programs as a result.

For the 2017-2018 academic year, the university stands to lose $3.8 million in state and federal appropriations, according to Lincoln University figures.

 To cover the deficit, the university will terminate 48 staff and faculty positions by the end of June and cut all employee pay by 0.5 percent, the first across-the-board pay cut ever imposed by the university.

On average, Lincoln’s budget has hovered around $50 million annually. Counting tuition, housing and other revenue streams, Lincoln generates around $13 million each year. The remaining $37 million must be made up with state and federal funding, according to independent auditor reports.

Lincoln has finalized a $33.5 million budget for the next academic year. Yet, despite all the financial shuffling, the school will still be about $1.8 million short, Provost Debra Greene told faculty and staff in early May.

“This amount has to come from salary,” she said in a memo. “There are no other places to cut.”

To help bridge the gap, the school will increase undergraduate and graduate tuition by 2 percent, then-President Kevin Rome told the Lincoln community in mid-May.

“We’re a small school in the middle of nowhere,” said Randy Mitchell, a junior at Lincoln studying journalism. “If the state is going to cut money, it’s going to come from us.”

 “The legislators don’t see their children coming here,” said Jacob Rowell, a recent graduate with a degree in environmental science. “They don’t really think of us.”

Chronic underfunding

Lincoln University and Harris-Stowe State University in St. Louis are the only two historically black colleges and universities in Missouri, a designation created in 1964 to identify schools founded to educate African Americans.

Although it has the designation, 53 percent of Lincoln’s student body of 3,289 undergraduate and graduate students is white — 1,500 students. There are 1,349 black students and 440 students of other ethnicities, according to data from Lincoln. Just 36 of the 184 instructional faculty belong to a minority group.

Lincoln, established in 1866, became a land grant university in 1890. The original 1862 Land Grant College Act, also known as the Morrill Act, gave 30,000 acres of federal land to states to create or extend eduction in agricultural or mechanical arts. MU was awarded land grant status in 1870 when it created the College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts, later renamed the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources.

The Morrill Act was extended in 1890 to include former slave states, but instead of granting land, the act included a mechanism for schools to receive annual funding.

The Second Morrill Act forbade racial discrimination in admissions policies for colleges receiving the federal funds. To circumvent this provision, a state could maintain separate institutions. Thus, land grant institutions like Lincoln University served African Americans.

Under the law, land grant schools can receive federal funds as long as there is a dollar-for-dollar state or local match.

To receive the state funding match, Lincoln’s appropriation must be passed in a separate legislative process by both the Missouri House and Senate, meaning the money is not guaranteed.

As a result, the history of support from land grant funding at Lincoln is spotty. Between fiscal years 2007 and 2014, the legislature allocated no revenue for the land grant match. In fiscal years 2015 and 2016, the state matched $500,000 each year.

In fiscal year 2017, the Missouri House and Senate passed a $2 million match to secure an equal amount of federal land grant funds, but $1 million was withheld by former Gov. Jay Nixon.

During the last legislative session, $2.5 million in land grant funding passed both the Missouri House and Senate, but it still needs Gov. Eric Greitens’ approval.

Budget cutting

During former president Rome’s four-year tenure, the chronic underfunding turned into persistent faculty, staff and program cuts.

From his first year in the fall of 2013 until Rome left this month, faculty and staff positions declined from 529 to 450, according to Lincoln University data.

In addition:

• Lincoln’s history department was suspended in 2016 based on its low graduation numbers. It was reinstated in February after campus outcry.

• Journalism and social work were put on academic monitoring, meaning the programs would end if the number of graduates dropped.

• Students on track for a degree in early childhood education, music education or sacred music had to change majors — and often remain in school longer — when their programs ended.

•  Chemistry was also doomed, but faculty resistance kept it from deactivation, according to Inside Higher Ed.

• In May, Lincoln’s curators voted to block promotions, tenure and sabbatical requests, according to the Jefferson City News-Tribune. This month, the board adjusted that position by approving promotions for five faculty and tenure for another four.

Discontent simmers

Not surprisingly, faculty and staff have been outraged by many of these decisions. A budget committee made up of faculty and staff members was disbanded in 2013, they say, depriving them of any voice to object to cuts or suggest alternatives.

“We lost our voice.” said Aimee Busalacki, an associate professor of biology. “Under the Rome administration, even the smallest measure of shared governance we previously had was eroded to the point where it’s nearly nonexistent.”

Angered that the administration was acting unilaterally, the faculty placed much of the blame on Said Sewell, then provost and vice president of academic affairs. In September 2016, they declared a vote of no-confidence in Sewell.

The faculty senate, an organized forum at Lincoln created by and for faculty members, voted 88-18 in favor of the resolution stating: “Dr. Sewell has repeatedly violated the principles of shared governance and has not responded in any substantive way to the concerns expressed by our members.”

At about the same time, much of the faculty joined the Missouri National Education Association to prompt collective bargaining.

“Before this, we never thought about unionizing. And I don’t just mean discussing or debating it. No one had ever thought about it,” said Noel Heermance, who has taught English at Lincoln for 48 years. “Not because we don’t think, but we had never been under the conditions where we need to think about it.”

Busalacki, now president of Lincoln’s chapter of the Missouri National Education Association, added: “Union organization was initiated due to feelings by members of the faculty that the administration was making unilateral decisions that were negatively impacting our ability to give students at Lincoln University the best education.”

Faculty and staff were also upset by the unprecedented announcement this spring that their pay would be cut by 0.5 percent.

“This is the first time I’ve heard of a pay decrease, even during past budget problems,” said Stephanie Clark, a math instructor and chair of the faculty senate. “The proposed pay decrease adds insult to injury, especially for the little amount that it will save the university.”

Although both Sewell and Rome have resigned, the faculty remains worried that many problems with administration are tied to the budget.

“When the pay is low, administrators come and do their thing and leave,” Heermance said. “We need someone who is familiar with the school. How can anybody know the curriculum and the people when they’re here for a brief period? But we can’t pay for that kind of leadership here.”

Starting again

Rome, who leaves Lincoln this month, will become president of Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. Mike Middleton, who served as interim president for MU for 15 months when there were conflicts between students and administration, took over as interim president of Lincoln earlier this month to again face conflicts between faculty and administration.

Middleton has said publicly that colleges and universities must become more cooperative to save money and avoid unnecessary duplication of programs and services. On June 14, Lincoln and the UM System signed a memorandum of understanding to “enhance their partnership, and benefit students and the economic development of the state.”

An advisory board will be created to assess the strengths of both universities, MU spokesman Christian Basi said. The partnership was also set up to share scholarly work, mutually seek grants, collaborate on research and organize international programs.

“There’s hope,” said Leslie Cross, the news and development director at the independently funded KJLU radio station, which sits in a small house at the corner of Lincoln’s campus. “But these budget cuts are tied to problems that still haven’t been solved.”

Students, meanwhile, have learned that all they can do is watch and hope their education plans aren’t impacted further. Open enrollment and an average tuition of $6,500 per semester primarily attract  a student body from rural Missouri.

“We deal with financial problems; it’s part of going here,” student Randy Mitchell said. “And now there’s a lot of friction. Everything that happens because of these cuts, we just take. If it was MU, there’d be protests. But protests take time off work and days away from school. We can’t afford that.”