Gov. Haley Barbour's plan to merge Mississippi's three historically black universities has created a tense atmosphere in a state saddled with a violent civil rights past and a decades-long legal battle over the historic underfunding of those schools.
At Jackson State University, students have turned to Twitter and Facebook to gather signatures on a petition to block the move proposed by the Republican governor. A half-dozen students attended a state College Board meeting Thursday expecting some discussion about the proposal, but there was none.
"I personally believe they undermined the uniqueness of the black colleges and how far we've come with the little resources we have," said Marissa Simms, a 20-year-old JSU student.
Many of the nation's public historically black colleges and universities, known as HBCUs, were founded more than a century ago. Mississippi's own Alcorn State University in Lorman was the country's first land-grant black college.
The state's other historically black campus is Mississippi Valley State University in Itta Bena.
Nationwide, there are 42 public HBCUs and dozens more private institutions. White House officials and representatives of national organizations say the colleges play a vital role in an initiative by the Democratic Obama administration.
Under Barbour's plan, no campuses would close but Alcorn State and Valley would be merged into Jackson State. Each of the smaller schools is roughly 100 miles from Jackson. Barbour said the merger would save money by reducing administrative costs and eliminating academic duplication.
He also wants to consolidate Mississippi University for Women with nearby Mississippi State University.
The governor said the restructuring could save the state $35 million out of a nearly $5.5 billion budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
The black university presidents have made clear they want to remain independent.
"The governor's proposed budget cuts will change the face of higher education in Mississippi for decades," JSU President Ronald Mason said in a statement.
Alcorn State President George Ross said the university leaders didn't find out about the plan until Monday.
"We don't have a lot of detail. We're reacting to something without much of the knowledge to react to it," Ross said.
Some key lawmakers said they wouldn't support the plan when the Legislature convenes in January.
"I don't think the House is going to give it much consideration," said Rep. Cecil Brown, a white Democrat from Jackson.
Rep. Adrienne Wooten, a black Democrat from Jackson, said all universities should be treated the same.
"I only know there are certain universities that are having to come forward and prove why they should remain open. That's not right," she said.
Barbour said a state with about 2.9 million residents can't afford eight universities. He said Monday he's not worried about appearing racially insensitive with his proposal.
John S. Wilson, executive director of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities, questions Barbour's rationale. Wilson said improving the campuses' capacity to educate more students, not cost-savings, should be the goal.
Wilson said the president wants the U.S. to have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020.
"In order to reach the 2020 goal, we're going to need greatness from the HBCUs," Wilson said. "Would this result in a great move in higher education for African-Americans in the state of Mississippi? Would it result in a great institution? I think that's unclear."
Black universities disproportionately enroll low-income students and minorities, demographic groups that rank much lower than their white counterparts in receiving college degrees.
Napoleon Moses, a vice president of the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education in Washington, D.C., said Mississippi should follow Louisiana's lead. He said Louisiana higher education officials are examining all the state's universities and colleges, not just its three HBCUs.
Moses called Barbour's proposal an "insensitive recommendation devoid of critical data." He also said the state has the "ugliest history of perpetuating a dual and unequal higher education system."
In 1975, Jake Ayers Sr. filed a lawsuit accusing Mississippi of giving more financial support to predominantly white schools. The state settled the lawsuit in 2002 and agreed to direct $503 million to the three historically black schools, collectively, over 17 years.
Negotiations for the lawsuit settlement included discussions of merging Mississippi Valley State University with nearby Delta State University, a predominantly white school. Nothing came of those merger talks.