ATLANTA --- Public colleges created during segregation to provide blacks an education denied to them by white institutions are at the center of a budget battle brewing in Georgia.
Facing a $2 billion shortfall, a Republican state senator has proposed merging two of the historically black schools with nearby predominantly white colleges to save money and in the process, he says, erase a vestige of Jim Crow-era segregation.
"I think we should close this ugly chapter in Georgia's history," Seth Harp, the chairman of the state Senate's Higher Education Committee, said Tuesday.
But Mr. Harp has stirred a torrent of opposition. Critics of the plan say students who might otherwise not attend college are being educated at the schools. Black students perform better in the black-college setting, experts say, and the dropout rate among blacks is lower than at majority white institutions.
The schools also represent a critical piece of the civil rights struggle.
"We can't afford to run away from our history," said Leonard Haynes, the executive director of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges.
The schools were largely founded before 1964, mostly in the segregated South to teach black students. But they are open to people of all races, and experts say the number of white students at the campuses has been on the rise.
Mr. Harp's proposal would merge the historically black 3,400-student Savannah State University with Armstrong Atlantic State University, a majority white school. Also, Albany State University, which has about 4,100 enrolled, would combine with nearby Darton College, which also has a predominantly white student body. The new campuses would keep the names of the older and more established black colleges.
But Mr. Harp's plan was preliminary, with few details about how the mergers would work.
Any combining of public universities needs Georgia Board of Regents approval.
A regents spokesman said the board has no plans to consider the idea and suggested it runs contrary to the goal of increasing the number of Georgians with college degrees.
"If anything, we need to be broadening access to higher education," regents spokesman John Millsaps said.
But Mr. Harp said deep budget cuts rippling across the state might leave the universities with little choice when trying to save about $250 million.
Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue on Tuesday declined to comment specifically on his fellow Republican's plan but said the grim economic picture gripping the nation and the state means public universities must look to spend efficiently.
But Mr. Harp, who is white, found an ally in Cynthia Tucker, the Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial page editor for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution . Ms. Tucker, who is black, wrote in a recent column that taxpayer-funded colleges "should be diverse, educating men and women of all colors and creeds."
There are 105 public and private historically black colleges in the U.S.
Although some private black colleges have folded over the years, no state has dismantled a public one, Mr. Haynes said.
Michael Lomax, the president and chief executive officer of the United Negro College Fund, questioned why Georgia's black colleges must bear the burden of the state's budget shortfall.
"It seems like a politically charged and politically motivated move rather than a fiscally responsible one," Mr. Lomax, former commission chairman of Georgia's most populous county, said.
WHAT THEY'RE SAYING
"There is no longer good reason for public colleges that are all-white or all-black." -- Cynthia Tucker, editorial page editor, Atlanta Journal-Constitution
"This is a proposal by a politician to address a budget shortfall without engaging academic professionals and planners." -- Michael Lomax, president and CEO of the United Negro College Fund