Racial diversity brings bucks, construction|[12/11/05]

Published 12:00 am Monday, December 12, 2005

LORMAN – From his office at the top of the administration building, Dr. Clinton Bristow Jr. looks out over the campus of Alcorn State University and sees black and white. It’s more white than it used to be, and it’s that increase that’s bringing the school $28 million in green.

Alcorn is the first of three eligible institutions of higher learning in the state to meet requirements for Ayers funding for its student body’s racial makeup.

Enrollment at the historically black university has increased by nearly 1,000 students in the past 10 years. During the same time, the percentage of white, Hispanic and other students jumped from 6.4 percent to 11.1 percent.

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&#8220Diversity has been our goal from the start,” said Bristow, president of ASU.

Ayers funding from the Board of Trustees of State Institutions of Higher Learning will allocate Alcorn about $28 million during the next 20 years.

In 1975, Jake Ayers filed a lawsuit against the state’s colleges and universities saying the three black colleges had received less funding than the mostly white institutions. After 29 years of litigation, the suit was settled in October 2004 with the ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court that no appeal would be heard.

The highlights of the agreement include $6.25 million for summer development programs, $245 million for academic programs, $70 million for endowments and $75 million for capital improvements. The money is to be divided among the three historically and predominantly black universities in the state – ASU, Jackson State University and Mississippi Valley State University – to be paid to each school upon reaching a student body diversity requirement of 10 percent.

&#8220All I can say is it’s awesome to have met that goal. We have to educate our students to be competitive as the workplace changes,” he said. &#8220Different points of view and backgrounds from students, staff and faculty help in that education. We’ve just been fortunate to now have a financial link to meeting that goal.”

Bristow said the Ayers money will be allocated three ways – development of new academic programs, new facilities and an endowment fund.

Vicksburg campus expansion

At the Vicksburg location shared with Hinds Community College, Bristow said a new higher education complex is currently in the design process to make the most of a shared space for both schools.

&#8220We would share common space such as a computer lab and library,” he said. &#8220We’ll also include a major distance learning lab.”

Also at the Vicksburg campus, the nursing program will be expanded to include full academic programs at the baccalaureate and masters levels.

&#8220The idea is that a student who wants a degree can start and finish at the same place,” Bristow said.

ASU’s nursing program is what draws many students, he said.

Jamela Bradford, a sophomore from Natchez majoring in nursing, said she chose ASU for nursing scholarships.

&#8220I knew the program was really good,” she said.

Bradford said she agrees the school has a more diverse student body than other schools.

&#8220I have a lot of different types of people in my classes,” she said.

Alicia Blanton, a freshman from Natchez majoring in nursing, said Alcorn offered the best programs.

&#8220I like it a lot. There’s a lot more people here with different backgrounds than I expected,” she said.

But for Kimberly Davis of Vicksburg, attending Alcorn is just a family tradition.

&#8220My mom and dad, uncles, aunts – everyone went here,” said Davis, a 2004 graduate of Warren Central High School.

Although still undecided about a major, Davis said she wouldn’t have gone anywhere else.

Growth system-wide

Other changes in degree programs include new masters’ programs in biotechnology and accountancy and a new MBA program in gaming and hospitality management at the Lorman campus. Bristow said other existing programs will be expanded, including computer networking, math and sciences.

Construction funded by the Ayers settlement will include a new nursing building and MBA building at the Natchez campus, and at the Lorman campus, a biotechnology building and renovations of the school of business building and fine arts building at the Lorman campus.

Bristow said the new construction and renovations will continue to attract diverse students, such as senior Brian Kehlar, a music major who’s from &#8220all over California.”

Kehlar, who is white, said he chose ASU because of music scholarships, but he had heard of the university’s fine arts programs through friends.

&#8220I had heard one of the professors, Dr. (David) Blackburn, was great, so it wasn’t hard to decide to come here,” said Kehlar, 25.

He said after experiencing a brief culture shock, he’s now very comfortable here as part of the diverse student body.

&#8220We have students from all over – Russia, Canada, Japan and California, like me,” he said.

John Williams, a New Orleans native, transferred to Alcorn after Hurricane Katrina.

&#8220I was a student at Xavier there, and Alcorn is the closest to Port Gibson, where I’m staying with family,” he said.

So far, Williams, a biology major, said he’s been impressed with the campus, the academic programs and the diversity.

&#8220I’ve seen a little bit of everything and everybody. I like it here,” Williams said.

Funds held in trust

Through publicly and privately funded endowments, the university will receive $1.7 million a year for the next 10 years through the Ayers Endowment Trust. Enrollments determined that ASU and Mississippi Valley each will receive 28.3 percent of endowment investments and JSU will receive 43.4 percent when the diversity requirements are met.

&#8220This will allow our university to stand financially strong for the next 10 years at least,” Bristow said. &#8220It will also allow us to become No. 1 in academic programming and student enrollment pursuits.”

Bristow said the Ayers funding will ensure additional fund-raising opportunities for the university from committed community members and alumni who want to see more opportunities for success.

&#8220We have now met our original goal, but we won’t stop there. We’ll have to advance our goal,” Bristow said.

&#8220We want to be the No. 1 university in southwest Mississippi and northeast Louisiana. We’ve got the leg up on the competition now,” he said.

Other schools in the area are Mississippi College, Millsaps College, Bellhaven College, Tougaloo College, JSU, University of Louisiana at Monroe and Louisiana State University at Monroe.

National recognition

In the past six months, Alcorn has gained national attention in USA Today and the Chronicle of Higher Education for its increase in graduation rates. The percentage of graduates has increased from 33 to 46 over eight years, which is a faster rate than all other colleges and universities in Mississippi and most other comparable schools in the nation. The statistics were compiled by College Results Online.

Another change has been an increase in the percentage of faculty members with doctorate degrees, Bristow said. They now make up 60 percent of the faculty, up from 50 percent.

Overall, the image of the university is changing, he said.

&#8220We’ve always had a great academic reputation, but we’re no longer the small, sleepy college that’s off the beaten path,” he said.

ASU is in Lorman, about 45 miles southwest of Vicksburg. Bristow notes work over the last decade to four-lane and resurface the once notoriously dangerous Mississippi 552 has eased traffic flow through Claiborne and Jefferson counties and has eased access to the campus from U.S. 61.

&#8220We’re becoming a major player within the state and nation, and we can only go up from here.”