The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Courts side with Maryland HBCUs in long-standing case over disparities in state higher education

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A federal judge this week ordered Maryland to remedy the lack of investment in the state’s historically black colleges and universities, in an effort to resolve a decade-old lawsuit over inequality in public higher education.

The state must establish a set of new, unique and high-demand programs at each historically black institution, the judge declared.

Since 2006, a coalition of alumni from Maryland’s four historically black institutions have been locked in litigation with the state to dismantle what they say are vestiges of racial segregation. The group says Maryland has underfunded Morgan State University, Coppin State University, Bowie State University and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, and allowed other state schools to duplicate their programs, placing pressure on enrollment. Over the years, the coalition has called for increased funding and merging the University of Baltimore with Morgan State, the state’s largest public historically black school, to achieve parity.

Maryland is still grappling with separate but equal in higher education

Though U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Blake dismissed both of those proposals, late Wednesday she delivered the coalition a win. Blake issued an injunction against the state, barring it from “maintaining vestiges of the prior . . . system of segregation in the form of unnecessary program duplication in the public higher education system.”

What that means is Maryland will now have to appoint an independent monitor who will create the programs, building on each school’s strengths. The monitor will be able to provide annual funding for marketing, student recruitment, financial aid and any related initiative over the next five to 10 years, according to the order.

Disparity in Maryland’s public higher education goes on trial

What’s more, any program proposed by a Maryland university must be reviewed by the monitor to ensure it will not harm the historically black schools. Blake has asked the coalition and the Maryland Higher Education Commission, the defendant in the case, to provide a list of public higher education experts who could lead the initiative. She will select someone from that pool to oversee the plan in the coming months.

“The remedial order issued by the court is truly historic and places Maryland on a long overdue path to achieving racial desegregation and more equitable outcomes for students,” said Kristen Clarke, the president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a party to the case. “Our historically black colleges and universities play a critical role in the educational landscape of our country, and with proper support and funding from the state, they can attract racially diverse pools of students.”

The Maryland Higher Education Commission did not immediately respond to calls for comment.

The case is rooted in a 2005 decision by the commission to approve a joint MBA program between the University of Baltimore and Towson University. Morgan State officials said the agreement would divert white students from its MBA program. Morgan State had recorded steady enrollment of white students in its program before the University of Baltimore started its own in the 1970s. Although the joint degree was scrapped, the case continued.

Alumni of historically black institutions say their schools are placed at a disadvantage when their most distinctive offerings are duplicated elsewhere, especially when the schools they compete with have better finances and newer facilities. The coalition first asked Maryland to account for decades of uneven investment in state schools by pouring more money into its historically black colleges and universities, but Blake nixed the proposal because state appropriations have improved over the years.

The judge recommended mediation in 2013, but the parties could not reach an agreement. At the time, the court found that 60 percent of the noncore programs at Maryland’s historically black institutions were unnecessarily duplicated at the state’s traditionally white institutions, which had just 18 percent of their noncore programs replicated at other public schools.

Maryland leaders pledged $10 million toward more joint degrees between historically black institutions and other public universities to satisfy the judge’s order. They also proposed creating summer programs for high school students at predominantly black schools to bolster the pool of applicants at those institutions. Blake said neither of those steps were adequate.

The legacy of higher education inequality in Maryland landed the state in trouble with the Department of Education in 2000. 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 duplication.