NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — Ever since Ember Tharpe started working at Alkebu-Lan Images, she’s always heard rumors.

“I’ve heard little bits of conversation,” she said. “Little bits about whether we’re going to lose TSU.”

However, she always knew of Tennessee State University’s importance, which sits right across the street from the store.

“TSU is a historical institution in Nashville,” she said. “It’s been really, really important for decades.”

Despite all of that, the university has always been short of money.

The U.S. Education Secretary recently sent a letter to Gov. Bill Lee stating the state of Tennessee owes at least $2.1 billion in back pay to TSU.

“It’s good to have the federal government weigh in and say, ‘We’ve done our research also, and we’ve discovered that there is a funding iniquity and has been for some time,'” said State Rep. Harold Love Jr. (D-Nashville).

Love, along with his father, have spent years fighting for the university to receive back pay from the state.

“Tennessee State, along with other 1890 institutions, were having to oftentimes provide that state match from their own funds,” he said.

Love said they worked to get capacity grants that dealt with research and teaching and cooperative extension.

“That was what we focused on because we could get the information for that,” he said.

Love, who is a TSU alum, said he and others do think about how different things could be if the money was there.

“What could the laboratories for chemistry and biology look like if they had the funding they needed?” he said. “What would the residence halls look like if they had the adequate funding?”

The letter stated the federal government used data from 1987-2020 to calculate money owed to TSU. It also stated the university would have been in a much stronger and better position to serve students, the state, and the nation.

“A lot of the people will blame it on the fact that it’s an HBCU rather than blaming it on the government,” said Tharpe. “(They will) kind of attribute it to bad budgeting or bad spending, when in reality they’re not getting a fraction of the money that other state schools are getting.”

In 2020, the state created a committee to explore how to compensate TSU, but Tharpe isn’t that confident the university will ever receive all the money it’s owed.

“I could see them giving them bits and pieces here and there just to stay correct, but imagining them writing a $2.1 billion dollar check; I absolutely do not think that’s going to happen,” she said.

The State Legislature awarded $250 million to TSU in April of 2022.

The university announced plans to use that money to upgrade and renovate academic buildings in January 2023.

News 2 reached out to Lee’s office for comment and was provided this statement:

As Governor Lee has said, Tennessee State University is a remarkable institution that is vital to our state’s long-term success, and he has proposed significant funding for TSU every year, including an historic $250 million investment last year for strategic initiatives at TSU. Tennessee’s FY22-23 budget also included an additional $68 million for infrastructure improvements, meaning the state provided a total of $318 million for TSU in 2023 alone.

The Governor’s landmark 2023 investment in TSU followed the multi-year work of the Tennessee General Assembly’s Joint Land Grant Committee, a bipartisan group appointed by the Speakers and chaired by Rep. Harold Love that explored the needs of TSU and how the state can support the institution’s mission going forward. The Study Committee’s review and recommendations included findings from a 2021 TN Higher Education Commission report, and members of the committee supported Gov. Lee’s efforts to deliver funding to TSU. Governor Lee remains committed to working with legislative partners and community leaders to support the success of TSU and HBCUs across Tennessee.