Raleigh, N.C. — After a heated, emotional debate, senators voted Thursday to remove three historically black colleges and universities from a list of five University of North Carolina campuses slated for a tuition discount program.
Fayetteville State University, Winston-Salem State University and Elizabeth City State University were removed by an amendment by Sen. Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson, from his plan, included in the Senate's budget, to cut tuition to $500 per semester for in-state students. Western Carolina University and UNC-Pembroke remain in the plan.
Apodaca said the plan was intended to offer lower-income students a more affordable college option, and he pledged that the state would replace the lost funding at each campus. However, HBCU students, faculty and alumni protested, along with the NAACP, arguing that Senate Republicans were aiming to dilute the schools' historical mission of service to the black community and to eventually shutter their doors by cutting off necessary tuition funding.
"We filed that bill with one motivation. That motivation was to make the benefits of public education available to all citizens of North Carolina," Apodaca said grimly Thursday morning. "That’s what we’re trying to accomplish here. That was our only goal."
He said he was completely unprepared for the "overwhelming" response to the proposal.
"We’ve heard quite a bit of talk, a lot of anger, a lot of discussion. It’s somewhat shocking to me and somewhat embarrassing. As of the last 30 minutes, I’ve had a death threat come into to my office," he said,
Black Democratic senators who debated the amendment all agreed that death threats were far out of line, but their responses to the plan were divided.
Sen. Don Davis, D-Wayne, said Republican lawmakers have "loosely and casually" talked about closing ECSU for years, which has contributed to the school's enrollment struggles, and noted that the schools have been unable to secure needed funding from Senate leaders in the past.
"In general, they're being picked on," Davis told Apodaca. "When you’ve gone through all of this, why wouldn’t you have a concern, will the money be there in the future?"
"I don’t believe there was a nefarious plan to sabotage the HBCUs," said Sen Floyd McKissick, D-Durham, noting that consulting with the schools' leaders in the early drafting of the plan might have assuaged many such fears. "I think the problem is one of perception and inclusiveness."
Sen. Gladys Robinson, D-Guilford, broke with her colleagues by asking Apodaca to consider putting ECSU back in the plan when the budget is in conference committee. She said she was "saddened" that the opportunity to work together to help the school "seems lost at this point."
"That university needs this funding. It needs the marketing. It needs the support to get where it needs to be," Robinson said.
Robinson, who served on the UNC Board of Governors for a decade, said Apodaca had consulted her in the drafting process but had not taken some of her suggestions about changes. She said that, as late as Wednesday, university officials had been working on a compromise, but she said Apodaca was too upset by that point to entertain the idea.
"Perception is real to people. The perception is, because folks have seen some bad things happen from the Republican side, their perception will be that it’s not well-intended," she said. "Partisanship has caused us, has kept us from bridging the divide this time. It’s how we see things, how people on the outside see it."
The amendment passed 42-6, with ayes and noes equally split across party lines.