Morgan State University is a historically black college in Baltimore, Md. (Paul Burk/National Trust for Historic Preservation)

Traditionally white public universities in Maryland count 122 academic programs that are not duplicated anywhere within the state system. Historically black state schools have only 11 such offerings.

That disparity is at the core of a lawsuit, spanning more than a decade, to end inequality within Maryland’s public higher education system. Advocates of the state’s four historically black universities have fought for more high-demand academic programs they say would enhance the competitiveness and sustainability of each school.

A recent ruling in the case could achieve those objectives and set Maryland and its four historically black universities on a path toward dismantling the legacy of segregation. But achieving parity among the state’s institutions of higher learning may challenge notions of equity and identity as the four schools lay the groundwork for their future.

Earlier this month, U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Blake ordered the appointment of an independent monitor to create a set of unique, high-demand academic programs at Morgan State University, Coppin State University, Bowie State University and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore.

Aminta Hawkins Breaux, the president of Bowie State University, chats with senior Daionna Young, 21, at the student center on campus in July. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

She instructed the monitor to provide an undetermined amount of annual funding for marketing, student recruitment, financial aid and any related initiative over the next decade. Blake also insisted that any program proposed by a Maryland university must be reviewed by the monitor to ensure it will not harm the historically black schools.

“We are looking at the ruling as a way in which we can position Morgan to truly be what the state designated us during the last legislative session to be: its preeminent, public, research university,” said David Wilson, president of Morgan State in Baltimore. “This is an opportunity to help us build out that mission with programs in urban sustainability, big data. . . . These are programs that are about the future, not about the past.”

Leaders at Bowie State and Eastern Shore said they also look forward to working with the court-appointed monitor, but declined to expound on the ruling. The Maryland Higher Education Commission, the defendant in the case, did not respond to requests for comment.

The University System of Maryland, which oversees 12 state schools, issued a measured statement on the order, which officials say they are still reviewing.

“No decision has been made regarding a future path, either legally or programmatically,” the statement said. “As we conduct this review, we are mindful of the history of this litigation and our ongoing commitment to fostering diverse, inclusive, affordable and academically excellent higher education opportunities for all Maryland students.”

If the ruling goes unchallenged, it could bring to an end a lawsuit dating to 2006. That year, a coalition of alumni from Maryland’s public historically black institutions sued the state for not spending enough on their alma maters. The graduates argued that Maryland was undermining the four schools and encouraging segregation by allowing well-funded, traditionally white public universities to duplicate programs offered at the historically black schools. In doing so, the state placed pressure on enrollment and made it difficult for the four universities to attract a diverse population.

To rectify the situation, the coalition has proposed remedies over the years, including increased funding and merging the University of Baltimore with Morgan State. A more recent proposal to transfer programs from traditionally white state schools raised the ire of the Maryland Higher Education Commission and some university presidents who said the plan would ultimately harm students.

Judge Blake dismissed those proposals, but delivered a ruling that the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which represents the coalition, and other advocates of desegregation say is much more consequential.

“Judge Blake has provided a foundation for a potentially far-reaching remedy that will over time enhance the institutional identities of the historically black institutions beyond race,” said Clifton F. Conrad, a professor of higher education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Equity is about more than just money.”

A dual and unequal system, he said, is a vestige of segregation. And that inequality is reflected in the disparities in the academic offerings within Maryland’s public higher education system.

“When you have institutional identities anchored in programs, then the money will come along with that in terms of students bringing money to programs, hiring faculty who can bring in external funding or getting more resources from the state.” Conrad said.

But some contend the ruling does not go far enough.

“Before we celebrate the glass half full, I would have liked to see a bolder decision that leveraged the tools of program transfers and mergers,” said David Burton, a graduate of Morgan State and one of the plaintiffs in the case. “I would have liked to see a decision that placed as much consideration on the harm done to students at [historically black colleges and universities] as it did on the potential harm to students at predominantly white institutions were program transfers to take place.”

He stressed that the case is not about student diversity, but about deliberate acts by Maryland to prevent student diversity and institutional parity in violation of federal law. Parity would provide an opportunity for the historically black universities to be relevant to all students, which they must achieve as public institutions, Burton said.

Conrad said creating programs to draw a more diverse population is a matter of sustainability. Having a competitive slate of courses is especially critical as college enrollment has leveled off across the country. But does the objective of diversity threaten the cultural identity of historically black institutions?

“The great tradition of Morgan State as a historically black institution is not threatened, just as the great tradition of Notre Dame as an institution rooted in Catholicism is not threatened” by having a diverse population, said Wilson, the Morgan State president. About a quarter of the university’s population is not black. “Strengthening our research mission is not antithetical to the great history and tradition of this institution.”

Though the Maryland lawsuit stems from a failed attempt by the University of Baltimore and Towson University to create a joint MBA program in 2005, the roots of the problem run far deeper. Wilson points to the creation of the University of Maryland Baltimore County in the 1960s as an example of the state’s disregard for its historically black schools.

“Some of the campuses, including Morgan, had facilities that should have been razed decades ago. The state decided not to make those kind of investments, but to start a totally new campus and to spend billions of dollars developing that new campus at the neglect of other schools,” Wilson said.

Equity, he said, starts with funding, and going forward resources must be meted out in a way that is responsive to the missions of each institution. Wilson wants the state to regard Morgan in the same way it does other research universities. He credits Maryland for pouring money into renovations at historically black institutions, but said those efforts come after decades of neglect.

Early on in the lawsuit, the coalition requested more money for the four historically black institutions, but the judge rejected the demand and said appropriations had improved. She also dismissed the state’s pledge of $10 million toward joint degrees between historically black institutions and other public universities, calling it inadequate.

Maryland is one of several states that has faced a reckoning for disparities in public higher education. Alabama in 2006 agreed to pay $600 million toward a 30-year campus renovation plan for its two public historically black institutions. Four years earlier, a U.S. district court ordered Mississippi to spend $503 million on its three historically black colleges.

Conrad, who has consulted on lawsuits involving desegregation, said the courts have demonstrated a “deficit of courage by placing primary emphasis on funding.”

Still, Mississippi, where the lion’s share of the settlement was earmarked for the addition of new graduate and professional degree programs, could serve as a case study for Maryland.

Jackson State University, for instance, used the settlement funding to establish a School of Public Health and create new academic programs in its College of Science, Engineering and Technology, according to university officials. The historically black institution credits those programs with making the university more competitive.

Enrollment at Jackson State has climbed over the years, according to a study by the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Minority Serving Institutions. But the study found that historically black institutions in Mississippi have lost more than a quarter of their state funding since the 2008 economic recession.

To Burton, there has to be a combination of new programs and funding to achieve parity at Maryland’s historically black institutions. He said he is encouraged by the judge’s appointment of a monitor and program review.

“It does provide a mechanism for going forward, but we have to address how we got here,” he said. “It’s going to be important that the special master not lose sight of the glass half-empty because that can undermine the objectivity that may go into looking forward.”