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Birmingham-Southern president reaches out to HBCU peers while pursuing $37.5 million to save school

Birmingham-Southern president reaches out to HBCU peers while pursuing $37.5 million to save school
Posted By: Sofía Montiel on January 25, 2023

Topple the wall. Figuratively. Literally, too.

As they did in Berlin just over 33 years ago. The Peaceful Revolution is what they called it when the Berlin wall (literally) separating East Berlin/East Germany from West Berlin/West Germany and the Iron Curtain (figuratively) toppled into ignominious history.

The wrought iron wall surrounding the artfully manicured 192-acre campus of Birmingham-Southern College on Arkadelphia Road in west Birmingham has stood since the summer of 1977. Stood for more than four-and-a-half decades on a hilltop “reared against the sky” — as its alma mater hails. Stood separating the respected 164-year-old private liberal arts college from its Bush Hills neighbors. From the city where it’s resided since 1918.

From the historic predominantly Black Bush Hills neighborhood surrounding the campus. From the Black city whose name it bears.

The wall was built—as long-time Birmingham residents know painfully well — in the wake of tragedy. After the **** abduction, ****, and **** of Quenette Shehane in 1976. She was a 21-year-old graduate of BSC and was set to return to her family’s home in Clio after a few weeks in Birmingham with her boyfriend. On the night of December 20th, the couple cooked steaks at a fraternity house on campus when Shehane left to get salad dressing at a nearby convenience store.

She never returned.

The next day, her frozen body was found in her car; she had been abducted at the convenience store by three men, it was later revealed in court, **** in her car as they drove around and shot while trying to escape.

The salad dressing was found in Shehane’s car, as were two cupcakes she bought for dessert.

Three men — Wallace Norrell Thomas, Eddie Bernard Neal, and Jerry Lee Jones — were convicted for this horror. Thomas was executed by electric chair in 1990; Neal and Jones remain incarcerated, having been denied parole multiple times.

It likely goes without saying, but for clarity: Shehane was white; the three men Black.

The wrought-iron wall was an overreach, an action borne of grief, anger and fear that unfairly tainted, unfairly convicted an entire community for the heinous actions of three men.

Now, it must come down. Literally. Figuratively, too.

Now, as BSC President Daniel Coleman seeks $37.5 million from taxpayers to save it. As he pleads for public money to save the private institution from its woeful decisions and an unforgiving economy. Save it from gutting its endowment to build, build, build while being ghosted by donors. Save it from slicing tuition and fees in half in 2018, from $35,791 to $17,650, more likely benefitting the spawn of alums and friends than anyone outside the figurative BSC wall. Save it from a recession that knocked the wind out of its already wheezing financials.

Save it from declining enrollment, a troubling trend impacting higher education nationwide. And one not likely to change in the near future due to demographic realities that cannot be ignored.

In the fall of 2019, BSC had a total enrollment of 1,209 students, according to the university. Last fall, just 975 students enrolled.

In 2019, 167 enrolled students were African American or 13.8% of the student body. Last fall, 147 Black students were enrolled, 15.1% of BSC’s dwindling population.

According to the latest census, 69% of the population in the city where BSC resides is Black; 43% of the county where it resides; 26% of the state.

Topple the wall.

To its credit, by what Bush Hills residents say, BSC has been a decent neighbor. Its students ignoring the wall to support their surrounding community.

“Any time we had something to do in the neighborhood, we could always go to Birmingham-Southern, and their kids would help us,” Bush Hills neighborhood President Waladine Streeter told my colleague, Rebecca Griesbach. “They’ve just been a solid partner for us. I could go on and on as I think back through the years, but it’s just been solid and anything we ask them to do … they go back and work it out for us.”

“We’ve enjoyed a good relationship with BSC over the years,” adds resident Anthony Hood. “They’ve been a good neighborhood and partner.”

Yet to many beyond those borders, including graduates from Birmingham City Schools, BSC might as well be Saturn. BSC should be a magnet for those kids, not a mirage.

It should be — if BSC is as prodigious a liberal arts educator as it professes to be — a beacon for Black thought leaders nationwide, in featured events that attract thoughtful residents from throughout the region.

Coleman, too, must be more mindful of the hues among BSC’s administration — Controller Donald Hollings is the highest-ranking Black official, according to the school (although he is not listed among the school’s “senior team on the BSC website). And that an institution of higher learning nestled in Birmingham, in Jefferson County, in a state with more historically Black colleges than any state in the nation, does not have a robust African-American studies program ( a “distinction” program requiring just 4 1/2 units from 14 courses scattered among nine different departments is not a major) haughtily blind.

“He’s got to diversify that campus,” says State Rep. Juandalynn Givan, a prominent voice in the debate over whether the legislature will heed Coleman’s plea. “It’s a ghost town.”

Coleman also seems to be aware of the look of his request in a state with a twisted history of responding to funding requests from HBCU presidents. In recent weeks, he reached out to Alabama A&M President Daniel Wims and Alabama State President Quinton Ross for their support. Wims and Associate Vice President Shannon Reeves met with Coleman, Reeves confirmed but would not elaborate on the content of the talks.

“Dr. Coleman reached out, but I have not spoken with him,” Ross shared in a text.

Bobbie Knight, president of Miles College, just 12 miles from BSC, said Coleman has not reached out to her, though the two chatted briefly at a recent event.

“The deal won’t happen without [support from HBCU presidents],” Givan says, “There’s going to be pushback from them, and rightfully so. Several members of their boards of trustees reached out to me. They’re upset about even the prospect of us giving them money and rightfully so. Those years when they just wanted an extra $1 million or $2 million, it was denied, denied, denied. So now how can we even fathom the thought of giving Birmingham-Southern additional money? That’s their issue.”

Topple the wall. Even as the legislature wrangles over this spending conundrum — one that is blending political fault lines.

“You’ve got Democrats who feel the same way Republicans feel about it,” Givan says. “It’s rare, it’s hard.”

While awaiting a response — direct deposit or funds not available — topple the wrought iron wall that has stood now for far too long.

Literally. Figuratively, too.

SOURCE Roy S. Johnson For AL.COM
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