Commentary

Saunders: Hey, HBCU alums, pour some money into your schools - not your parties

bsaunders@newsobserver.comFebruary 24, 2014 

In some Langston Hughes short stories, somebody with too much month left at the end of the money would often shout some variation of, “I know: Let’s throw a party.” The concept of the rent party to alleviate acute financial distress was thus born.

A News & Observer story last week reported on the teetering financial situation facing Saint Augustine’s University and other black schools, and right on cue, the biggest party of the year – the CIAA basketball tournament – begins this week.

Let’s throw a party, indeed.

The only problem is the proceeds from the weeklong wang dang doodle being held in Charlotte aren’t being used to help save St. Aug’s or any other struggling school: That cash is going to the city of Charlotte and Queen City restaurants, hotels, clothing stores and jewelers.

Nero supposedly fiddled while Rome burned. Some alumni of HBCUs could be accused of doing the dougie, the wobble or whatever is the latest dance craze no one over 21 should attempt, while their alma maters wither and die.

That’s what happened to St. Paul’s College last year, you know: It withered and died. It’s conceivable that yet another black college could be lost by the time the next Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association shindig rolls around.

‘Not on my watch’

That, in a word, would be disgraceful. Every alumnus of an HBCU, anyone who knows someone who attended an HBCU or who knows what HBCU stands for – historically black colleges and universities – ought to declare “Not on my watch, they won’t!”

People who came before us did far more with far less, often starting these institutions with nothing but a dream. Mary McLeod Bethune was so broke when she started what is now Bethune-Cookman University that she had her students go into the woods and pick blackberries so she could make ink from the juice.

That’s why the CIAA should postpone its tournament next year and use that money to help its member institutions and itself.

Wouldn’t it be delightful, insightful and absolutely alrightful if, instead of dropping millions into Charlotte for an ephemeral basketball bacchanalia, we planted that money where it will show dividends and grow future scholars?

Sure, some of the problems at St. Aug’s, as they were at St. Paul’s, were self-inflicted. An audit discovered financial control problems and disorganization.

A larger problem, though, as pointed out in our story last week, is that the school took in $3 million less in tuition than it did the previous year. Many students, apparently, couldn’t afford to come back.

Stopping the party?

Will that sobering fact stop the seal on one bottle of premium booze – they’re not drinking Cold Duck – from being broken in Charlotte this week, one festive party from happening?

No. The Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority reported last year that the tournament had an economic impact of $47 million. That was down from the $50 million estimated in 2012. The CRVA estimates on its website that CIAA visitors directly spent $30 million.

Laura Hill, a spokeswoman for the CRVA, said CIAA visitors occupy more than 40,000 hotel room nights. Let’s assume those rooms are $200 a night – $300 after you add the state, city, county and the you’ll-pay-it-anyway-so-let’s-just-add-it-on-for-the-hell-of-it taxes.

That right there is about $12 million that could go toward retiring a bunch of debts and providing a lot of scholarships for deserving kids who otherwise will get no closer to a college education than watching “A Different World” reruns on TV.

When you add in the amount spent on expensive yack – that’s Cognac, my favorite liquid sin – other top-shelf libations and fine food that will be consumed this week, we’re talking enough money to put a serious dent in the possibly door-closing debt many of these schools face.

The entire CIAA annual budget is less than $6 million and the organization is perpetually po’ mouthing. Does it make any kind of sense to drop $30 million in Charlotte for one week?

Face it, folks: Charlotte’s welcome to the CIAA these previous eight years has been grudging at best, mercenary at worst. The city’s police close off streets, creating massive, gratuitous traffic jams, and some hotels bar anyone not registered from entering the lobbies. Don’t even talk about the weeklong price increases at clubs, restaurants and hotels that visitors bemoan – even as they pay them.

It’s too late to call the tournament off this year, but the CIAA would be setting a great precedent for self-reliance if, next year, instead of giving that $30 million to Charlotte businesses, it invested it into the schools, into scholarships, into itself.

After that, I’ll get out there two years from now and do the dougie and the wobble alongside everybody else.

Saunders: 919-836-2811 or bsaunders@newsobserver.com

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