"It's tough to dismantle a dual system," said Clifton F. Conrad, a professor of higher education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He studied Maryland's system as an expert witness during the trial that led to the judge's recent ruling. The case was filed in 2006 by students and alumni of the state's historically black colleges and universities, alleging that racist policies remained.

"People like things as they are, don't they?" Conrad said.

Differences on campuses

There are stark differences between the two Eastern Shore schools.

Some of the UMES facilities are badly in bad of renovation. Historic buildings appear worn on the outside, with dull paint and eroded brick. Inside, students walk along dim, narrow hallways. The classrooms are small and crowded with faded carpets and cramped desks attached to chairs.

By contrast, the interiors at Salisbury boast bright, cheerful maroon-and-gold trimmings and polished walkways. The spaces are expansive and warmly lit, with large classrooms, updated furniture and cushioned seating.  

The discrepancies between the schools can be traced to their origins — one as an oft-neglected school for African-Americans specializing in agriculture, home economics and the mechanical arts, and the other a teachers college for whites. Salisbury also has had some generous donors over the years.

"We still have many needs … and we're working to address those as best we can," UMES President Juliette Bell said.

She's relying on the collaboration to help both institutions grow and meet the community's need.

"We are somewhat distinct here on the Eastern Shore in that our location kind of forces us to become partners, because we are isolated from the rest of the state and from the other higher-education institutions in the state," Bell said. "We've kind of built those alliances between us because we need each other to help us to survive."

Avoiding 'collision course'

After Webb's task force came out with its report in 1977, presidents at the two schools embraced the recommendations, said Ronnie Holden, vice president for administrative affairs at UMES.

"They got together and they developed a plan … that kept us off a collision course," said Holden, who's been at UMES for 37 years.

The cooperative spirit continued into the 1980s, when a mission and programmatic strategy became clear, and the 1990s, when the schools provided transportation for students who commute between them.

"They were determined that these two institutions work together and move forward," Holden said.

Today, the joint efforts include two dual degree programs. One in biology and marine/environmental sciences has won at least two awards for collaboration, including a 1998 award for collaboration among a traditionally white school and a traditionally black school.

The other dual degree is the program in sociology and social work that Ngwa, the UMES senior, participates in. He said that the suffering he saw in his native Cameroon, an impoverished African country, made him want to help others through social work.

He splits his time between campuses, focusing on sociology at UMES and social work at Salisbury.

"One of the things that we really wanted was students from both institutions to share a classroom experience so that they could begin to talk to each other and learn about people who are different from them," said Deborah Mathews, chair of Salisbury's social work department. "That difference could be racial, it could also be urban, rural."

The schools also conduct joint training, administrators drive to conferences together, faculty and students collaborate on research projects, and students in the health programs even share cadavers.