After a federal judge found that Maryland's historically black colleges face unfair and unconstitutional competition from the state's predominantly white universities, the parties headed into negotiations this month to work it out.
But even with the far-reaching court decision, some worried the rights of black institutions wouldn't be protected and tried to put the judge's ruling on the books as state law.
"I'm normally not a Doubting Thomas," said state Sen. Joan Carter Conway, a Baltimore Democrat and member of the Legislative Black Caucus who introduced the legislation. "I just don't see them coming to an agreement."
While Carter's effort has likely failed in this year's General Assembly session — opponents argued it could have scuttled mediation and led to more lawsuits — it underscored deep misgivings about the ability of the long-feuding sides to come to a resolution.
That unease is one of many hurdles the parties will have to overcome to resolve a 2006 lawsuit filed against the state by some of the alumni and students at the four public historically black colleges and universities — Morgan State, Bowie State, Coppin State and the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore.
U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Blake ruled in October that the state hadn't done enough to stop traditionally white universities from offering the same sought-after academic programs as HBCUs, thereby encouraging segregation among campuses.
The "dual system" of programs makes it difficult for the state's HBCUs to attract nonblack students, Blake found. Decades after desegregation of the state's universities began, about 91 percent of students at Maryland's HBCUs are black.
The parties began meeting with a mediation judge in late January, and this month began face-to-face negotiations. The process is expected to be lengthy, expensive and potentially contentious.
The state's universities could wind up pitted against one another in competition for new programs in growing fields like computer science. Creating those programs could cost millions of dollars. And there's a chance the mediation phase could fail and end up back to court.
The outcome also is likely to have a more significant impact on universities in the Baltimore area because of existing duplication and geographical proximity.
Maryland's HBCUs are hoping for a future in which new unique, programs draw in a larger and more diverse student body to boost declining enrollments, professors are paid on par with their counterparts at state universities and the institutions become regional economic hubs.
"The ruling could create for Baltimore a world-class, comprehensive research university," said Morgan State University President David Wilson. "This ruling will help us get to the top of the mountain. We're not looking at the ruling as trimming something around the edges. I think this is an opportunity for transformation."
Wilson said he is targeting about eight fields where he thinks Morgan could add programs, including in business and cybersecurity. But, he said, the state needs to step up funding to support the programs, not just approve them.
The mediation, which is expected to last for months, will be confidential and some parties were tight-lipped about what they expect. State officials said university presidents were told to refer comment about mediation to the University System of Maryland. Morgan is the only public HBCU that is not part of the university system.
"The state is intent on conducting a good-faith mediation," said Danette Gerald Howard, the secretary of the Maryland Higher Education Commission, the body that oversees and approves university programs and that will be a party to the talks. Howard declined to comment further.
The University System of Maryland, which was not a defendant in the lawsuit but will be affected by its outcome, is trying to find a delicate balance between addressing Blake's ruling and ensuring the traditionally white universities aren't harmed by being denied the chance to create competitive new programs, said Joann A. Boughman, USM's senior vice chancellor for academic affairs.
"The old adage would be robbing Peter to pay Paul," Boughman said. The universities "have been working well together over the years, and it hurts when any member of the family is being punched, if you will."
Universities may move to protect their existing programs and interests, but Boughman hopes that many programs can be enhanced or shared between colleges and that the university system as a whole can benefit.
Boughman said new programs can cost millions of dollars as new faculty are hired and other infrastructure is put in place. While launching combined programs also can be tricky, she said that's being considered.
"Part of our hope is that we can develop enough win-wins where we do not have to end up in a place where anyone ends up losing," she said.
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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