HBCU DIGEST: Report: Tennessee State Needs More Than $330 Million to Address Urgent Deferred Maintenance in Next 5 Years

A study into land-grant funding withheld from Tennessee State University over decades has revealed that the flagship HBCU requires more than $420 million in deferred maintenance that will need to be addressed within the next decade, including $337 million in projects which are critical enough to demand improvement in the next five years. 

The numbers were revealed in a memo from Emily House, Executive Director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, in a report to the Joint Land Grant Institution Funding Ad Hoc Committee of the Tennessee Legislature earlier this month. 

According to House, the campus’ mechanical, electrical, and utility systems require immediate upgrades in addition to several new academic and service buildings, including a new agriculture complex, engineering building, student center, and library. 

Four residence halls should also be demolished and replaced with new facilities, according to the memo’s recommendations. 

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The data just keeps rolling in Nashville and was found in relatively short order by the work of a bipartisan committee seeking to right the wrongs of decades past. This set underscores the research of the damage created by the state against TSU in withholding matching funds from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which awards funding to land-grant institutions on conditions of awards being matched by non-federal resources. 

In April, the committee reported that the institution could be owed more than $544 million in withheld funding over 70 years from the state government. 

It would be easy to hope that Tennessee learns from lessons taught in Maryland, where underfunding and duplicated academic programs over generations will cost the state more than $577 million in a legal settlement with alumni over treatment of its four public HBCUs. But there’s something more urgent at stake in Nashville, and that is a race against time and nature. 

Over the last decade, Tennessee State has been at the center of major natural disasters impacting Nashville. Last year, a tornado caused more than $20 million in structural damage and losses of livestock in its agricultural facilities. In 2019, a lightning strike knocked out power to a significant portion of the campus, compromising residence halls and academic facilities for days. 

In 2010, flooding in the city destroyed a majority of TSU’s goat herds used for important research and cooperative extension efforts. Those damages were estimated at $500,000 but the sum of how operations changed in the years of recovery for all of these issues is virtually incalculable. 

Tennessee State, like all colleges and universities nationwide, will soon be managing life with covid as a permanent centrifuge that separates how we define leadership, public support, and operations in new financial and political realities. Crumbling infrastructure is the last thing that this campus needs to complicate a future where there will be no more covid relief money to be given away by the federal government, fewer students to recruit and high expectations for TSU to remain among the nation’s great HBCUs.