Message from SCICU President and CEO Jeff Perez –
For my column this month I thought I’d share with you my comments at the press conference announcing SCICU’s participation in the federal lawsuit to strike the “Blaine Amendment” from the S.C. Constitution.
My organization is a party to this lawsuit in order to strike from the South Carolina Constitution a provision expressly intended to thwart the establishment and growth of independent and religious colleges and universities in our state. Why? The historical record is clear the purpose was to deny African Americans and Catholics the hope of a better life through education.
Today, the 20 SCICU member institutions are paying the price for the racist and anti-religious intentions of Ben “Pitchfork” Tillman. Because of the provision in the state constitution prohibiting aid to independent and religious institutions, our governor feels compelled to deny my members access to federal funding clearly intended for us by Congress in the CARES Act.
Governor McMaster initially signaled he would provide federal GEER funding for eight Historically Black Colleges and Universities, five of whom belong to SCICU. A court case predicated on the Blaine Amendment successfully prevented the governor from using GEER funding for private and religious K-12 school students, and discouraged him from following through on the funding for the HBCUs.
The General Assembly’s Act 154 of last year included independent higher education with state and local agencies, and public colleges and universities for reimbursement for COVID-19 expenses from a pool of $115 million of federal CARES Act funding. Chastened by the court case, the South Carolina Department of Administration informed SCICU that its member institutions would not be permitted to continue the process for applying for a portion of this funding out of fear for being sued.
I want to be very clear who the villains are in this story. Ben “Pitchfork” Tillman was an enemy of African Americans and was abetted in his efforts by constitutional language inspired by James G. Blaine whose anti-Catholicism dovetailed nicely with Tillman’s racism. They worked tirelessly to ensure religious organizations would be unable to fully realize their efforts to foster educational institutions that would benefit peoples they considered unfit to participate in the American Dream.
Their legacy is to diminish the capacity of independent colleges and universities to serve their students, whose families in recent months have been upended by the COVID-19 pandemic. Fully 45 percent of students at SCICU campuses receive federal Pell Grants, which are designated for the most economically disadvantaged students. These are the students at greatest risk of dropping out.
My member institutions have endured massive disruptions to their operations as a result of the pandemic. They were counting on the federal support contained in GEER and Act 154. And so were the surrounding communities – these colleges and universities are essential to the economic wellbeing of the regions in which they are located.
On a personal note, my academic background is American History. I studied the development of state and federal governments as part of my doctoral research. I join this endeavor with a deep sense of reverence for the intentions of the Founding Fathers who had the courage to imagine a government of the people, by the people and for the people, though they fell short of their aspirations. And for the Civil War generation who advanced that great mission by enshrining equal treatment under the law in the 14th Amendment, though its application has been imperfect. And for modern generations who have struggled, and sometimes died, for those civil rights.
I am humbled by the prospect of continuing their work by absolving South Carolina of the injustice entombed in its constitution.