Hogan willing to spend $100 million to settle HBCU lawsuit against Maryland

Gov. Larry Hogan said he is open to spending as much as $100 million to settle a lawsuit brought by a coalition of historically black colleges in Maryland, signaling his desire to end a legal battle that has dragged on for more than a decade.

In a letter to Del. Cheryl D. Glenn, chair of the state’s legislative black caucus, the governor’s chief legal counsel, Robert Scholz, said Hogan is willing to discuss using those funds to supplement the state’s support for HBCUs over a 10-year period.

“It represents a serious, multi-year commitment which we believe goes well beyond what the law requires,” Scholz wrote in the letter dated Wednesday.

A coalition of Maryland’s four HBCUs — Morgan State, Coppin State, Bowie State and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore — filed a suit in 2006, contending that Maryland had long fostered segregation in higher education by allowing well-funded academic programs at traditionally white universities to undermine similar ones at historically black schools.

The Coalition for Equity and Excellence in Maryland Higher Education said this practice denies HBCUs the opportunity to attract a diverse student body. Judge Catherine C. Blake ruled in 2013 that the state’s action perpetuated segregation, and, during a remedial trial last year, both sides proposed solutions in her courtroom.

Lawyers representing the four HBCUs argued that the state should pay for the schools to develop dozens of new, high-demand educational programs that would help each of them create distinct academic identities. They didn’t attach a specific price tag to this demand but estimated in court that it would cost several hundred million dollars.

The state’s lawyers instead proposed spending $50 million to support marketing, multicultural centers and scholarships aimed at boosting diversity at the state's HBCUs.

Blake rejected both sides’ proposals and instead said she would appoint a “special master” to help the two groups develop a plan focused on creating unique, high-demand programs at historically black colleges. She said the plan also should provide sufficient funding to help the schools with recruiting and financial aid.

The state recently appealed Blake’s ruling, further delaying the drawn-out case.

The legislative black caucus told Hogan earlier this year that resolving the 12-year-old lawsuit is one of its top priorities for the session.

Glenn said she was heartened by the governor’s offer, calling it “a tremendous victory” for Maryland’s historically black schools.

“It’s a very legitimate offer,” she said. “It gets us to the table. I hesitate to say with any finality whether this is the end of it or not. The devil is in the details and this settlement really needs to be spelled out in detail.”

In his letter to Glenn, Scholz emphasized that Hogan’s offer would come on top of the money Maryland already paid to the state’s HBCUs and is more than double what the state proposed in the remedial trial.

Michael Jones, an attorney for the HBCUs, said this letter represents a “step toward a meaningful remedy.”

“But it is not the end of the journey,” he said.

Jones said he believes a proper remedy must start with identifying the new programs that will be developed at each HBCU and then later attaching a price tag.

“What the state seems to have done is just pick a number — $100 million — and then say, from this, we can come up with the programs,” he said. “It could be a useful first step, but if they see this as the end of the process, the appeals will continue.”

The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, which is also representing the HBCUs, released a statement Thursday saying Hogan’s offer does not address several issues at the center of the case. The organization contends that the governor’s letter is silent on whether the “special master” would review any new academic program proposed by a state university to ensure it will not harm a historically black college by unnecessarily duplicating offerings.

“The State’s preliminary offer opens the door to a resolution, but real programmatic changes remain critical to placing Maryland on a path to racial desegregation,” Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the committee, said in a statement.

Scholz acknowledged the need to hammer out the details of a settlement, including figuring out how the money would be spent consistent with Blake’s ruling, and how it would be divided among the schools.

“Ultimately, I am writing to let you know that Governor Hogan wants to bring this litigation to an end in a manner satisfactory to all parties,” he wrote in the letter.

trichman@baltsun.com

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