The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Maryland is still grappling with separate but equal in higher education

Members of the Morgan State University Choir walk by the memorial candle during the National Memorial Service for the late South African President Nelson Mandela at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. in December 2013. (EPA/SHAWN THEW)

A recent ruling in a decade-old case over the lack of investment in Maryland’s historically black colleges shows the state’s troubles with inequity in higher education are far from resolved.

Federal judge Catherine C. Blake nixed a proposal by a coalition of alumni from Maryland’s four historically black institutions to merge the University of Baltimore with the state’s largest public HBCU, Morgan State University. The idea is one of three the group put forth to create parity among the state’s public colleges and universities.

Blake previously dismissed a call for increased funding, arguing that state appropriations had improved over the years. But in the latest ruling, she supported the coalition’s bid for the creation of academic niches at historically black institutions to make them more competitive.

Judge rejects proposals to merge 2 universities

The coalition sued the state in 2006 for underfunding historically black colleges and allowing other state schools to duplicate their programs, placing pressure on enrollment. 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” at the four schools — Morgan State, Coppin State University, Bowie State University and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore.

At the time, the court found that 60 percent of the non-core programs at Maryland’s historically black institutions were unnecessarily duplicated at the state’s traditionally white institutions, which had just 18 percent of their non-core programs replicated at other public schools.

Problems came to a head in 2005, when the Maryland Higher Education Commission, which declined to comment for this article, blessed a joint MBA program between UB and Towson University. Officials at Morgan State railed against the agreement, saying the program would sap white students from its own MBA program. Morgan State enjoyed steady enrollment of white students in its program before UB started its own in the 1970s. Although the joint degree was scrapped in November 2015, the case remains ongoing.

Two Maryland universities end joint MBA program that sparked lawsuit

State leaders have proposed creating summer programs for high school students at predominantly black schools to bolster the pool of applicants at historically black institutions. They also pledged $10 million toward more joint degrees between historically black institutions and other public universities to satisfy the judge’s order.

In her latest ruling, Blake said the proposal was “neither adequate nor sufficiently specific.”

“It’s just a joke. I’m glad that the judge saw through it,” said Jon Greenbaum, an attorney for the coalition. “The state didn’t even try to explain how that would desegregate.”

Blake called for both parties to find a way to ensure program duplication would not happen again, but said she considered Morgan State merging with UB “extreme.” The judge ordered both sides to submit a proposal to resolve the matter by Feb. 19, leaving open the possibility of additional hearings.

UB President Kurt L. Schmoke said he was pleased with the judge’s decision to dismiss the proposed merger. He said he has reached out to officials at Coppin State to explore potential collaborations.

“We operate a joint-degree program in human services administration that’s been going well and could serve as a model for greater collaboration,” he said. “I’m for greater collaboration, not merger.”

Morgan State President David Wilson was not available for comment.

Maryland’s legacy of higher education inequality landed the state in trouble with the Department of Education in 2000. At the time, the state struck an agreement with the department’s Office of Civil Rights to develop unique, high-demand academic programs at historically black institutions and avoid further unneeded program duplication.

U-Md. can’t offer online program available at Morgan State

Of Maryland’s four historically black universities, Eastern Shore has had the most success collaborating with traditionally white schools. Blake held up the school’s collaborations with Salisbury University as a model for eliminating duplication. Eastern Shore has the highest percentage of white students, at 15 percent, of any of the four historically black institutions. White students at the school primarily enroll in what the coalition called “unique, high-demand programs,” according to a court filing in May.

That’s why the coalition suggested creating academic niches at all four schools to attract students of all races, Greenbaum said. In the May filing, the coalition said it supports transferring 11 programs from other state schools, launching 13 joint degree programs and adding almost 50 degree programs. But transferring programs from other state schools could hurt their enrollment.

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