When the federal government began designating historically black colleges and universities as land grant institutions in 1890, Central State University in Wilberforce seemed like a natural fit.
It had an agricultural education program. It had a strong tradition of serving African-American students. It was a public university, too.
But Central State was passed over after what Rep. Mike Turner called “intense political wrangling,” leaving the state with only one land grant college, Ohio State University. One hundred and twenty three years passed.
But now that wait is close to an end. On Wednesday, the House passed a five-year farm bill that would give the southwest Ohio university the designation. The Senate is expected to pass the bill later this week and send it to President Barack Obama for final passage. The bill passed 251-166. Reps. Tim Ryan, D-Niles, Jim Jordan, R-Urbana, and Cincinnati Republicans Steve Chabot and Brad Wenstrup voted against it.
“We are ecstatic,” said the school’s president, Cynthia Jackson-Hammond.
“This designation is long overdue,” said Turner, R-Dayton.
“This is fulfilling a moral obligation,” said Rep. Joyce Beatty, D-Jefferson Twp., a Central State alumnus.
Jackson-Hammond said the designation will eventually mean the university is eligible for additional federal dollars, but she said it will also help the university focus more on agricultural programs. The university currently has a focus on water resource management and crop development.
She said the designation will also encourage other land grant universities to begin research partnerships with Central State. She said Ohio State has already been working with Central State on some research projects, and she expects that to expand after the designation.
“These partnerships will produce innovations,” she said. “And innovations, as you know, will spur student interest in agricultural sciences.”
She said she hoped the designation would also increase enrollment at the school, which currently enrolls a little more than 2,000.
“Central State University can play an important role in promoting agriculture research and education through the country,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, who said the designation will also increase partnerships with Ohio’s agriculture industry and help boost graduates’ chances of employment in the ag industry.
The bill was the result of a coalition that included Beatty, Turner, Brown and Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Cleveland. Brown and Fudge are members of the joint House-Senate committee that put together the compromised farm bills. Turner wrote an amendment cosponsored by a handful of Ohio lawmakers, and the delegation also wrote a letter in support of the designation. Sen. Chris Widener, R-Springfield, led a parallel push for the designation in the Ohio General Assembly.
Fudge said after Central State wasn’t picked initially to be a land grant institution, it became increasingly difficult to garner the designation. She said the state wasn’t considered because its agriculture programs in 1890 weren’t considered strong; once they weren’t selected, however, it became harder for them to improve those programs.
Another challenge was the fact that other land grant institutions were protective of their status. But ultimately, “once we started talking with them about how we were treated unfairly,” the group of historically black college land grant institutions were swayed, she swayed.
The designation, she said, will help attract students to a field responsible for one in 12 jobs in Ohio.
Among the key champions for the designation was Ohio State, the only other land grant institution in Ohio.
Beatty said former Ohio State University President Gordon Gee was also an early advocate of the designation. “Ohio State was 100 percent in support of doing this, because it shouldn’t have happened in 1890,” she said.
“I can’t even say to you how important they were,” Fudge said.
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