By Emily West

NASHVILLE, TN (WTVF) — It’s not a new argument, but it’s a new figure — the federal government has written a letter to Gov. Bill Lee explaining that Tennessee State University is owed $2.1 billion in back pay for underfunding the school. 

Tennessee State University and the University of Tennessee are land-grant colleges. As outlined in the Second Morrill Act of 1890, all land-grant colleges should receive the same funding. A land-grant college is a research-based school within the state. Both schools have extensions to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and both have agriculture programs. 

In essence, TSU still had to function as a land grant college without the same funding, the letter stated. 

“This is a situation that clearly predates all of us. However, it is a problem that we can work together to solve,” wrote Michael Cardona and Thomas Vilsack. Cardona is the secretary of the U.S. Department of Education and Vilsack is the secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. 

“In fact, it is our hope that we can collaborate to avoid burdensome and costly litigation that has occurred in several states.”

The issue of Tennessee having dual systems for White students and Black students was argued in the 1960s in the court with Geier vs. the University of Tennessee. 

Rita Sanders Geier — an educator at TSU in 1968 — said the higher education institutions were segregated when it came to funding. A year later, the state filed its first plan to desegregate those institutions in the state. 

Ultimately, the court denied Geier’s petition in the court. 

Per the letter, the federal government framed in its letter where the $2.1 billion disadvantage came from the 1980s until 2020. 

It’s not clear what — if anything — will happen after Lee receives this letter. In 2023, the legislature provided TSU with a lump sum of $250 million for infrastructure projects. This came after years of unpaid land grant matches by the state, a joint committee of the legislature decided. However, that committee said TSU was owed more than half a billion dollars.