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Funding sent Virginia’s two land-grant universities on different paths

An illustration shows a brick building with several trees and bushes arranged along its exterior. In the upper lefthand corner is text that says "Langston Hall, Virginia State College, Petersburg, Va."
Boston Public Library
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Virginia State University was founded in 1882 as Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute before changing its name several times during the ensuing decades.

Federal officials estimate VSU was underfunded by $277 million between 1987 and 2020.

Two federal officials recently sent a letter to Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin, calling on him to help address a longstanding disparity in funding for Virginia State University, a public historically Black school.

Virginia State University is among the country’s Black land-grant universities that have been collectively underfunded by their states by $13 billion over the past few decades, according to the letter.

Federal officials estimated VSU was underfunded by $277 million between 1987 and 2020.

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

But some experts point out that VSU’s funding disparity goes back much further.

The Morrill Act of 1862 gave each state 30,000 acres to establish public colleges and universities focused on agriculture and engineering; majority-white Virginia Tech was established in the commonwealth.

But because of the discrimination and exclusion Black students faced at those schools, a second Morrill Act was passed in 1890, mandating that states either consider Black students equally or found separate land-grant schools for them. Virginia chose the latter, leading to VSU being established.

If states chose the option Virginia did, federal law specified that they must provide an equitable distribution of funds between their 1862 and 1890 land-grant institutions. But that didn’t happen, according to federal judge Roger Gregory, who participated in a recent VCU panel about HBCU funding.

Gregory said that despite the law specifically mentioning equitable funding across the two schools, Virginia State didn’t receive research funds or extension center funding for decades.

“The idea is not to reduce funding and appropriation from other schools. We need that,” Gregory said. “But I'm talking about the fair share that the law said that was delayed some 90 years in one [instance] and 83 another.”

Because of the historic underfunding, the federal letter states that VSU “has not been able to advance in ways that are on par with Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University” and suggests policymakers carve out a “substantial state allocation toward the 1890 deficit combined with a forward-looking budget commitment for a two-to-one match of federal land-grant funding.”

The letter does note recent steps to increase funding to HBCUs in Virginia, which Attorney General Jason Miyares noted during the panel.

He said that 10 years ago, the average amount of state funding per in-state student at Virginia State was $12,400. He pointed to this year’s budget, which he said will more than double the amount of per-student funding at the university to $31,900.

“That’s an extraordinary increase,” Miyares said. “It does not make up for the decades and decades of inequities and improper funding imbalances. But it is a step in the right direction.”

Gregory said that despite the funding disparities, Virginia State was able to offer him some amazing experiences as a student: He attended the Harvard Model United Nations for two years, as well as a civil rights symposium hosted by former President Lyndon Johnson in 1972.

“Everybody was there during the Civil Rights Movement, except for Dr. King because he had been slain years earlier,” Gregory said about attending the symposium.

He added that L. Douglas Wilder was his constitutional law professor for two courses during his undergraduate career. The experience inspired him to go to law school.

“Historically black colleges and universities were able to make bricks without straw,” Gregory said.

Megan Pauly covers education and health care issues in the greater Richmond region.