Morgan State University, a historically black college in Baltimore, is Maryland’s designated public urban university and the largest HBCU in Maryland
(Paul Burk/ National Trust for Historic Preservation)

Inequality in Maryland’s higher education system will take center stage next week in a trial to resolve a decade-old lawsuit over the lack of investment in the state’s historically black colleges and universities.

A coalition of alumni from Maryland’s four historically black institutions have been locked in litigation with the state since 2006, aiming to dismantle what they say are the vestiges of racial segregation. The group says Maryland has underfunded its HBCUs and allowed other state schools to duplicate their programs, placing pressure on enrollment. Federal Judge Catherine C. Blake recommended mediation in 2013 to redress what she called a “shameful history of de jure segregation” at Morgan State University, Coppin State University, Bowie State University and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore. Yet the coalition and the state could not reach an agreement.

Beginning Monday, both sides will return to court to discuss the creation of academic niches at historically black institutions to make them more competitive with their traditionally white peers. It is one of several of the coalition’s proposals, but one of the few that has garnered Blake’s support. The group wants the state to build out specializations at each school that could attract students of all races, such as computer sciences at Bowie State or engineering and aviation at Eastern Shore.

The court previously 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.

“This case is about bringing long-overdue racial equity to students enrolled at HBCUs,” said Kristen Clarke, president of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a party to the case. “There was a brief time following Brown vs Board of Education when Maryland’s HBCUs offered unique programs and saw increased enrollment of white students, but instead of investing that success, Maryland turned its back on HBCUs, thereby undermining their success.”

Although racial disparities have long existed among Maryland’s public colleges and universities, problems came to a head in 2005, when the Maryland Higher Education Commission approved a joint MBA program between the University of Baltimore and Towson University. Officials at Morgan State criticized 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. Though the joint degree was scrapped in November 2015, the lawsuit that emerged out of the fight continues.

Alumni of historically black institutions have argued that their schools are placed at a disadvantage when their most distinctive offerings are duplicated elsewhere, especially when the schools they compete with are better funded and have newer facilities. The coalition initially asked Maryland to account for decades of uneven investment in state schools by increasing funding at the four HBCUs, but Blake dismissed the proposal because state appropriations have improved over the years. The judge also rejected a proposal to merge UB with Morgan State, calling the idea “extreme.”

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 have pledged $10 million toward more joint degrees between historically black institutions and other public universities to satisfy the judge’s order, but Blake said the proposals were inadequate. Attorneys for the state did not respond to requests for comment.

Altogether, the coalition is seeking the transfer of 11 programs from other state schools, launching 13 joint degree programs and adding almost 50 degree programs.

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