Posted on September 4, 2016


The impact of education in this country is huge. And well it should be. It is through education that we bring our children into the world of adults with the values and knowledge and opportunities we want them to have.

We all have a stake in education, from K-12 through college and beyond to graduate and professional schools. Your kids learn to read and your doctors to operate in schools.

Education is the great social escalator in this country. You may be born poor, black, Hispanic, or face other racial and ethnic barriers, but the promise is there. Your parents will live through you as you climb up and out of the circumstances you were born into and realize your goals and ambitions, through education.

Today Stillman College, an HBCU (historically black colleges and universities), is facing budget problems and the City of Tuscaloosa is helping them by guaranteeing some loans. Some critics claim this is not an appropriate way to spend public funds. Let’s examine the issues in a bit more detail.

I’m not into government “bail outs” in general, but we have a long history of public support for education in this country, going back at least to the mid- and second-half of the nineteenth century when the U. S. pioneered public education.

The general premise is if we expect to survive and prosper as a democratic republic, through the ballot box, then we owe it to ourselves to encourage and support an educated electorate.

Government has a huge role to play in the way we handle our affairs, from making war to education. I am no friend of government moving into areas where individuals should be taking the initiative—all the way from work to family relations and much more—but we can’t bury our heads in the sand to all the good work that government does.

If we can give tax breaks worth millions to enterprises like Mercedes Benz, surely we can shore up a wonderful, small but effective, and necessary institution like Stillman.

Some might say, well Stillman is private and so it has to stand on its own two feet. Let me gently suggest that public funding of private universities, from Harvard to Duke to Stanford to you-name-it is huge in this country, through contracts and grants for research, support of students, and in many other fashions.

The argument for supporting Stillman was made by Mayor Walter Maddox and a team who drew together the facts.

 The City’s liability—for guaranteeing loans– under this plan is $665,000.  The agreement protects the City’s investment by collateralizing 30 acres of athletic fields, including a field house, football stadium (with track and suites), softball field and baseball field.  The worth of the collateral is likely above ten million.

If Stillman should default, the City has two options: sell portions or all the acquired properties which would more than cover the liability of $665,000. Or, convert the facilities for public use.

In the language of word mavens, this is a win-win situation.

For a $665,000 investment in higher education, the city gains $10 million in property that can be leveraged to cover the liability and/or put to the public’s use.

The Mayor and the City Council were also concerned to secure the safety and development of people and places around Stillman College if it should close.

My concern is with falsely separating “private” from “public” education in the mind of the public. It is all one activity, although phases of it over the years have changed. Let’s start out at the beginnings.

Colleges all began in this country in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to educate men (women were added later) for the Christian ministry. They were all little Stillman Colleges (established by the Presbyterians BTW), not simply to educate ministers but also to prepare young people to add to their community and nation through learning. Princeton too was just a little Presbyterian college in the beginning.

That the City has figured out a way—with little or no economic risk—to “save” Stillman College is to say that the City values higher education. It comes to us in many packages–UA, Shelton State, Stillman—and they are diverse and fulfill different needs. If one fails, we all lose something in our commitment to education.

We need to support all three—each a distinct expression of higher education’s principles and goals—and each benefits from the diverse strengths and offerings of all three.

 Published as “City Makes Right Call on Stillman,” in The Tuscaloosa News, Sunday July 31, 2016.

Posted in: Education