Next year Bowie State University – one of the oldest Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) in the nation – will celebrate its 150th anniversary. And many members of the school’s proud alumni continue to question why the last two spring commencement ceremonies have been celebrated on the campus of the University of Maryland.

In a letter published in last week’s AFRO, Weldon Jackson, Provost and vice-president for academic affairs of Bowie State University reported nearly 650 students graduated at the school’s 2014 Spring commencement held at the Comcast Center on the campus of the University of Maryland.

In the letter, Jackson also claimed the cost of nearly $200,000 for moving the commencement from Bowie’s campus to the Comcast center – a move the school also made in 2013 – was “erroneous,” (Jackson did not provide the amount the school spent for the Spring commencement in 2013 or 2014).

He was referencing a claim made by Diane Wilson-Bragg, a Bowie State alumnus who graduated from the school in 1961. She specifically stated Bowie’s 2013 commencement, which featured First Lady Michelle Obama cost the school $198,436 to move it from Bulldog Stadium on Bowie’s Campus to the Comcast Center.

“I don’t think Bowie can afford to pay that kind of money,” Wilson-Bragg declared in an AFRO article published on May 16. Documents obtained through the Maryland Public Information Act validate Wilson-Bragg’s claim.

According to a letter from the office of Karen Johnson Shaheed, executive vice-president and general counsel for Bowie State University the exact cost of Bowie’s spring commencement was $198,436, with $54,672 in additional expenses connected to the presence of Michelle Obama as commencement speaker. The previous year 2012 the cost of Bowie’s commencement, which took place on the school’s campus was $130,000. The document from Shaheed’s office indicates the increase for the 2013 commencement, “was absorbed in the Provost’s budget with no impact on the University’s budget,” according to the letter dated January 8, 2014.

“We have pride just like Morehouse, just like Spellman and other HBCU, in fact we’re older than all of them,” said Ervin Reid, a former student body president and alumnus of Bowie State who graduated in 1981, who also participated in the protest against the move of the school’s commencement.

“We’re coming up on our 150th year and we’ve had something like 146 graduations that have taken place at Bowie State and I don’t understand why we would take that tradition, all of the people that came before me and move that graduation away,” Reid added.

Last week’s letter from Provost Jackson also states, “The decision to hold the Bowie State University spring commencement at the Comcast Center was well considered by the campus community.”

However, many who disagree with the commencement move from Bowie State to the University of Maryland argue the process that led to the decision was dubious at best.

There was a survey taken of students, faculty, staff and administrators in 2013 and Bowie State’s President Mickey Burnim allegedly consulted with a commencement committee before the decision was made.

In the fall of 2013, Bowie State had an enrollment of 5,561 students, yet only 862 students participated in the 2013 commencement survey. No parents or alumni participated in the survey. And the commencement committee was made up of three individuals: Dr. Freddie Vaughns, Ms. Cynthia Coleman and Ms. Frances Christian.

Erving Reid argues the commencement controversy is symbolic of a bigger issue facing Bowie State and other HBCU in Maryland and across the country.

“The move into the university system (University System of Maryland) was a very bad move,” Reid said. “Budgets around this country, state budgets are being cut every day and as they continue to be cut does Maryland really need to have four historically Black colleges and universities? So, when you start cozying up and moving to the University of Maryland…why don’t we just make the University of Maryland at Bowie?”

Sean Yoes

AFRO Baltimore Editor