Federal judge rejects proposals to boost diversity at Maryland's HBCUs

Rejecting proposals by a civil rights group and Maryland higher education officials to boost diversity at the state’s historically black colleges, a federal judge said she will appoint an official to craft an alternative plan.

In a ruling issued Wednesday, Judge Catherine C. Blake said she wouldn’t require so-called “traditionally white” schools to close academic programs and transfer them to historically black colleges — the most controversial aspect of the case.

Her decision comes more than a decade into a lawsuit about whether historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs, were denied the chance to attract students of other races because academic programs offered at the HBCUs were copied and offered by traditionally white schools.

Blake ruled in 2013 that the state’s actions fostered segregation in the public higher education system even after legal segregation ended.

Coming up with a solution has proven difficult, however, and the judge wrote that “neither party’s remedy, as currently proposed, is practicable, educationally sound, and sufficient to address the segregative harms of program duplication.”

Lawyers representing the coalition of HBCUs in Maryland — Morgan State, Coppin State, Bowie State and the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore — previously proposed transferring some academic programs offered at traditionally white universities to the historically black schools. They also called for dozens of new programs — many that would be considered “unique or in high demand” — to be developed at HBCUs, enabling them to develop distinct identities.

The state instead proposed spending millions of dollars for marketing, multicultural centers and scholarships aimed at increasing diversity at the state’s HBCUs.

The attorney general’s office, which represents the state’s higher education commission, declined to comment, as did a spokesman for the university system.

Michael Jones, lead counsel for the HBCUs, said the ruling presented a positive path forward for the state’s four historically black schools.

“In higher education, academic programs are magnets; they attract students; they attract funding; they bring prestige. The Court’s order essentially requires Maryland to do what it has been promising to do ever since before Brown v Board of Education,” he said in a written statement, referring to the landmark 1954 school desegregation case.

In her ruling Wednesday, Blake faulted both state officials and the HBCUs, known as the Coalition for Equity and Excellence in Maryland Higher Education, for not working closely together to devise a remedy.

“Crafting such a plan is a daunting task requiring the good faith collaboration of the coalition and the state,” Blake wrote. “The court urges such collaboration to strengthen and enhance Maryland’s [historically black institutions] for the benefit of all Maryland students, present and future.”

As a result, Blake wrote, she would appoint a so-called “special master” to involve everyone in coming up with a plan.

Blake wrote that the plan should focus on creating unique or high-demand programs at the historically black colleges in order to help them attract a more diverse student population and should provide funding to help the schools with recruiting and financial aid. It should only shift particular programs if the colleges involved agree, Blake said.

“The remedial order issued by the court is truly historic and places Maryland on a long overdue path to achieving racial desegregation and more equitable outcomes for students,” said Kristen Clarke, president of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights, which represents the coalition, in a statement.

The judge told the parties to submit their choices for a special master within 60 days and to agree on a candidate if possible. The master should submit a final draft of the plan within a year of being appointed, Blake wrote, and include steps for implementation over the next decade.

Jones said a faster way to achieve the coalition’s goals would have been to transfer programs, but the ruling still lays out a suitable solution, albeit a more drawn out one.

“Justice sometimes moves slowly,” he said.

The case is unusual because Blake concluded that most of Maryland’s schools are not segregated and so the emphasis has been on promoting diversity at the historically black schools, rather than finding ways to get more black and other minority students into majority-white institutions.

In 2005, the Maryland Higher Education Commission approved a joint MBA program between Towson University and the University of Baltimore, sparking the lawsuit. Officials at Morgan State said this new program threatened their own MBA offering, and would deter students from taking advantage of it.

While Towson and University of Baltimore officials ended the joint program in 2015, the coalition behind the lawsuit said that kind of program duplication is at the heart of their argument, and is why HBCUs’ diversity has suffered.

In the 1970s, the state’s four historically black institutions had white student populations of about 20 percent. By 2009, they had plummeted to an average of around 5 percent.

“I certainly look forward to working with the special master that the judge has indicated will be appointed to develop a remedial plan,” said Morgan State president David Wilson. “That plan will be one that includes new, unique and high demand programs and will come up with the funding needed to support those programs.”

Jones said he believes Blake’s ruling will positively affect Maryland’s higher education landscape in the long term.

“When the Brown decision came out, the state was very opposed to it. Now they look back and embrace it,” he said. “The state fought this tooth and nail, but in decades to come, they’ll back at it and say, ‘This is a good thing that’s helpful to the state.’”

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