Maryland is closer to resolving a long legal fight over inequitable funding of the state’s four historically Black colleges and universities after Gov. Larry Hogan (R) signed legislation Wednesday to provide $577 million over a decade to the schools.

The legislation, which the Maryland General Assembly approved last week, would fund scholarships, faculty, academic programs and marketing at Morgan State University, Coppin State University, Bowie State University and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore.

The state must now finalize a settlement agreement by June with the Coalition for Equity and Excellence in Maryland Higher Education, a group of graduates of the historically Black institutions who sued the state in 2006.

“We finally got to this day,” Maryland House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County) told the crowd gathered for the bill signing at Bowie State. The crowd, made up of university presidents, alumni and advocates, cheered.

Jones, the first Black woman to serve as speaker and the mother and sister of HBCU graduates, said she is expecting the settlement to be finalized this spring.

The decision to sign the measure is a reversal for Hogan, who in the past rejected the more than half-billion-dollar settlement the coalition proposed.

In 2019, the governor offered a third of the amount and described it as the state’s “final” offer. Last year he vetoed a similar HBCU settlement bill, calling it too costly as the state dealt with the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic.

On Wednesday, Hogan said the enactment of the bill will allow the four universities to take “an unprecedented step forward.”

Despite his previous veto and offers, he said his administration has always been committed to addressing the systemic inequities at the universities, adding that the state has given more than $2 billion to the schools since he became governor.

“This legislation that we’re signing into law here today will provide even more critical investments for all of these institutions,” he said.

Lawmakers who have long pushed for a settlement credit the advocacy of the coalition, students, university leaders, pro bono attorneys and others for the lawsuit nearing its end.

Michael D. Jones, the lead attorney for the coalition, said he is eager to engage with Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh (D) to finalize the deal before the deadline set by the legislation.

“There is still a bit of work left to do,” said Jones, a partner with the firm Kirkland & Ellis, who has been working on the case pro bono since 2009. “I’m not anticipating any difficulties, but we have to get to it right away.”

In its lawsuit, the coalition alleged that the state hurt the HBCUs’ enrollment by letting other state colleges duplicate programs that once attracted a diverse student body to their schools.

Negotiations between the state and the coalition stalled after several rounds of court-ordered mediation. The coalition ramped up a public campaign in 2019 to bring awareness to the case and sought the help of lawmakers.

“This is about people power,” said state Sen. Charles E. Sydnor III (D-Baltimore County), who sponsored the Senate bill. “And it’s finally an acknowledgment that the state engaged in an activity that it shouldn’t have been engaged in.”

Sydnor and Jones reintroduced the legislation earlier this year and called on the state to use some of the proceeds from a tobacco settlement.

Beginning in the 2023 fiscal year, the state will provide $57.7 million annually to be divided up between the four universities based on student enrollment. Morgan State will receive $24 million in the first year, Bowie State $16.8 million, Eastern Shore $9.7 million and Coppin State $9 million.

“This is a historic moment and unique opportunity to correct decades of previous untraceable and traceable state-supported inequities,” Coppin State President Anthony L. Jenkins said in a statement. “We will immediately begin working with all stakeholders to implement provisions that will allow Coppin State to … continue to provide quality higher education.”

The funding is considered supplemental and not meant to supplant state appropriations. The University System of Maryland will also work with the four universities to create online programs, while the Maryland Higher Education Commission will reevaluate its process for approving new academic programs.

“This infusion of money will enable us to put in place new high-demand academic degree programs that are in alignment with the work of the future,” said David Wilson, president of Morgan State. “Morgan is ready to move from the second floor of the research house to the penthouse.”

Morgan and the state’s other HBCUs have benefited from the groundswell of philanthropic giving after George Floyd’s death sparked national protests against police brutality and racial inequality. The outpouring of financial support has been a welcome change for institutions that have been routinely ignored by big donors.

But advocates for the schools say disparities created by public policy require public policy solutions. They hope the new Maryland law represents a sea change in the way the state regards institutions born out of legal segregation and never fully integrated into the state’s higher education system.

State and federal authorities have documented the inequitable treatment of the four universities over the years. Maryland poured resources into its other public colleges while ignoring requests for investment in facilities and academic programs that could attract and retain students and faculty.

Earl S. Richardson, president of Morgan State from 1984 to 2010, recalled the years he spent pleading with the state for the resources showered on other public research universities. Even as Morgan State burnished its national reputation in the sciences, he said the support never fully materialized.

“We tried cajoling, lobbying, compromising … performing only to be told stick to your knitting,” Richardson said. “This lawsuit was not born out of anger or malice. It was a desperate act of last resort.”

A 2005 decision by the Maryland Higher Education Commission to approve a joint MBA program between the University of Baltimore and Towson University set the coalition lawsuit in motion. Morgan State said the agreement would divert White students from its MBA program, which had recorded steady enrollment of White students before the University of Baltimore started its own in the 1970s.

The joint degree was scrapped, but it was emblematic of the lasting legacy of segregation in Maryland’s higher education system, said David Burton, president of Morgan State’s Class of 1967 who helped form the coalition.

“Towson was not even half the size of Morgan when I was there but had surpassed Morgan in size, scale and student body,” he said. “It was one of many examples of how the state had systematically undermined the competitiveness of its HBCUs.”

The coalition found that traditionally White public universities in Maryland had 122 academic programs that are not duplicated anywhere within the state system. Historically Black state schools had only 11 such offerings.

Indeed, U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Blake recommended the parties enter mediation in 2013 to redress what she called a “shameful history of de jure segregation” and “practices of unnecessary program duplication that continue to have segregative effects.”

Maryland leaders have over the years acknowledged the state’s troubled history of segregation in higher education but have argued that increased financial support to the four universities has largely remedied the problem. Advocates for the HBCUs say establishing parity within the public university system requires greater investment.

“We’ve been battling for a long time,” said Joan Carter Conway, a former senator from Baltimore City who pushed legislation after the MBA program at Morgan State was duplicated. “I just want things to smooth out and that we get our adequate share and we get what’s due to us.”

Maryland is one of several states that have been forced to atone for disparities in public higher education. Alabama in 2006 agreed to pay $600 million toward a 30-year campus renovation plan for its two historically Black public institutions. Four years earlier, a U.S. district court ordered Mississippi to spend more than $500 million on its three historically Black colleges.

In many of those cases, state lawmakers played a crucial role in reaching resolutions, just as they have in Maryland.

“This is a big win for the Maryland Legislative Black Caucus and the speaker and her Black agenda,” said Del. Darryl Barnes (D-Prince George’s), the chairman of the Black Caucus. “Is it what everybody wanted? No. But I do believe it will provide the necessary capital for those HBCUs to help with programming, recruiting and faculty. And that’s a huge win for them.”