While Boughman pointed to a joint Morgan and Towson University program in geography and urban planning as a good example of collaboration, she said not all earlier attempts to avoid duplicative programs have gone well.

For example, University of Maryland, University College was once allowed to launch a doctoral program in community college leadership, but could not accept students from Maryland to protect a similar program at Morgan, a compromise she described as "an awkward situation at best."

Desegregation of the state's public colleges did not begin in earnest until the early 1970s, and by 1976, the HBCUs had a white undergraduate enrollment of about 18 percent. But in 2009, the percentage of white students at the HBCUs had fallen to an average of 5 percent. Overall enrollment has declined in recent years at Maryland's HBCUs, with the exception of UMES, though officials largely blame stricter qualification requirements for federal PLUS loans for parents.

Some other HBCUs across the country are looking to diversify their student bodies to remain competitive and are watching the outcome of Maryland's mediation.

"People may have to get beyond their own biases and perceptions for what it means to be at these institutions," said Wilson. "I don't want to hear this notion that our institutions will not be in a position to attract multi-ethnic, multi-racial populations, because I see that already at Morgan. But you have to think beyond your confined parameters."

Michael D. Jones, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said the state needs to take a stronger leadership role in brokering solutions during mediation.

"I don't particularly blame institutions to want to maintain whatever advantage they have," he said. "The fault falls into the lap of the governing body. So long as you continue to have every institution for itself then the institutions that have the historical advantages are going to come out on top."

"It's not going to take very long for us to know whether the mediation is going to be a fruitful path or not," he added.

Boughman said she believed university officials are intent on resolving their differences in mediation — and not returning to court. But she said that doesn't mean the possibility of a renewed legal fight by universities hasn't been contemplated.

Conway is among those who are not confident the mediation will succeed.

For the time being, she has withdrawn her bill, which she called the "most contentious" in this year's General Assembly session. Besides mandating that traditionally white institutions could not unfairly duplicate programs at HBCUs, the bill would have made it easier for institutions to sue over the issue.

Too many lawmakers were opposed to the bill, Conway said, because they thought it would introduce new conflicts into the middle of the mediation. P.J. Hogan, the vice chancellor of government relations for USM, said at a recent Board of Regents meeting that the system was "concerned about institutions suing each other in Circuit Court" if the bill passed.

Conway said she removed the language in her bill that would have made it easier for universities to sue and hopes to reintroduce it. She reiterated her doubts about mediation, saying traditionally white institutions are "not willing to give the programs back." She said, "They haven't agreed to give anything back."

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