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Maryland offers $100 million to settle decade-long case involving historically black schools

Alumni from Morgan State University and Maryland’s other historically black institutions sued in 2006 to dismantle what they say are vestiges of racial segregation. (Paul Burk/National Trust for Historic Preservation)

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) on Wednesday offered the state’s historically black colleges and universities up to $100 million to resolve a 12-year-old lawsuit over inequality in public higher education.

The proposed settlement is more than double the amount the state pledged early in the case. It arrives a day after a federal judge granted the state a temporary reprieve as it appeals an order issued in November to establish a set of unique and high-demand programs at its four historically black institutions — Morgan State University, Coppin State University, Bowie State University and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore.

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

But the proposal may not be enough to satisfy the coalition of alumni from Maryland’s historically black institutions who filed the lawsuit in 2006 to dismantle what they say are vestiges of racial segregation. The group has accused Maryland of insufficiently funding historically black colleges and allowing other state schools to duplicate their programs, placing pressure on enrollment.

U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Blake had directed Maryland to appoint an independent monitor for the creation of programs that build on each school’s strengths. The monitor was given the authority to provide annual funding for marketing, student recruitment, financial aid and any related initiative over the next five to 10 years.

The state appealed a month after Blake’s ruling, and has since suggested mediation in an attempt to resolve the case. The settlement offer revealed Wednesday would supplement state appropriations to the four public historically black institutions over a 10-year period, according to a letter Hogan’s chief legal counsel Robert F. Scholz sent Wednesday to Cheryl D. Glenn (D-Baltimore City), who chairs the Black Caucus.

“A settlement on this basis would remove the litigation risk for both the plaintiffs and defendants and enable all to move forward knowing that the litigation will have advanced higher education in Maryland,” Scholz wrote. “It represents a serious, multi-year commitment which we believe goes well beyond what the law requires.”

It remains to be seen how the money would be divided among the four schools or spent in a way consistent with the judge’s order. Scholz said those issues would have to be negotiated between the parties, resolved with the courts and included in a final settlement agreement.

Maryland is still grappling with separate but equal in higher education

“Governor Hogan wants to bring this litigation to an end in a manner satisfactory to all parties, and in the best interests of all Marylanders, especially current and future [historically black institution] students,” Scholz wrote.

Traditionally white public universities in Maryland count 122 academic programs not duplicated elsewhere within the state system, while historically black schools have only 11 such offerings. That disparity is why advocates have fought for more high-demand academic programs they say would enhance the competitiveness and sustainability of the four schools.

“The state’s letter just talks about dollars — it does not talk about putting any kind of dent in that 10-to-1 disparity,” said Michael D. Jones, lead attorney for the alumni coalition. “The goal is to address the disparity by placing a certain number of unique programs at the [historically black institutions], and it was up to the special master to figure out which ones and at what cost.”

“You have to have programs and a commitment by the state that if the schools get a good program, they are not going to unnecessarily duplicate it,” he said.

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. 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.

At Md.’s historically black schools, the pursuit of equity without forgoing identity

Judge Blake dismissed those proposals, but delivered a ruling that Jones and other advocates of desegregation have considered significant. Jones said he is willing to hash out the terms of the proposed settlement depending on the state’s stance on creating programs. The money alone, he said, will not dismantle the structural inequality that exists between traditionally white and historically black state colleges.

“If you say . . . we’re going to give the [historically black institutions] these new programs that are going to meet the state’s workforce needs and anybody black, white or Latino who wants the program can attend, that starts to upend the structural inequality,” Jones said. “And that needs to be a part of the remedy.”