Federal trial opens on remedies to segregation in Maryland's university system

Trials begins in decade-long legal battle to resolve segregation in Maryland university system

A proposal to dismantle about 100 academic programs offered at traditionally white universities in Maryland and transfer them to historically black universities would have a "catastrophic effect" on the institutions and harm students of all races, an attorney for the state argued Monday in federal court.

Attorney Cy Smith urged U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Blake to take modest, measured steps when imposing remedies for a history of segregation.

"It is an idea that poses an unthinkable risk to public higher education in Maryland," he said. "We are fearful of that sort of change."

But civil rights attorneys accused Maryland officials of delaying deliberately, frustrating attempts to resolve a decade-long lawsuit over segregation in the state's public universities.

The state has shown "extraordinary disregard to come forth with a meaningful good-faith remedy," attorney Michael Jones told Blake. "It largely stems, your honor, from their opinion this isn't that big of a deal."

The sides delivered opening arguments Monday in the search for remedies to what Blake has found to be a "shameful history" of segregation in the university system.

A coalition of alumni, faculty and advocates for the historically black universities filed the lawsuit in 2006. They argued that marquee academic programs at well-funded, traditionally white public universities erode similar programs at historically black colleges.

Blake wrote in 2013 that the state had failed to stop the white institutions from offering duplicate programs, thereby encouraging segregation. Court-ordered mediation failed in 2011 and 2014. Blake ordered both sides back to court to hash out remedies.

On Monday alumni from Maryland's four historically black universities — Morgan State, Coppin State, Bowie State, and the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore — crowded into the Baltimore courtroom to hear the institutions' legal team make their case.

Blake opened the empty jury box to accommodate the crowd.

James Fielder, the state secretary of higher education, and attorneys for the governor also appeared in court. Presidents from universities across the state are expected to testify in coming weeks. The trial's outcome could have far-reaching implications for higher education across Maryland.

Morgan State President David Wilson testified Monday that his university would benefit from expanded academics.

"I want to see top-quality, unique programs at Morgan where students, regardless of color or ethnicity, would come because those programs are second to none," he said.

Desegregation of the state's public colleges did not begin in earnest until the early 1970s. By 1976, the historically black colleges had a white undergraduate enrollment of about 18 percent. But that percentage plunged to an average of 5 percent by 2009.

Wilson said new programs remain the key to attracting white students and diversifying Morgan State.

"You have to have a high-quality, unique program that is not offered down the street," he said.

In the early 1980s, the Maryland Higher Education Commission recommended establishing engineering at Morgan. But the commission then sent some engineering programs to the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. The dual engineering programs remain today.

"The state made a terrible decision," Wilson said. "When I speak with my faculty in the school of engineering, they're saying their hands are tied because they've been given half a loaf."

The Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which has taken over the case for the plaintiffs, has compared its case to Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark 1954 case in which the U.S Supreme Court struck down segregation in public schools nationwide.

The committee filed the lawsuit after the Maryland Higher Education Commission approved a joint MBA program between Towson University and the University of Baltimore in 2005. The program allowed students to take classes at both campuses and online.

Morgan officials argued the program would draw students — white students, in particular — from its own MBA program, where white enrollment had fallen since UB began offering MBA degrees in the 1970s.

Towson and UB have since ended their joint MBA program. State officials argued in court filings that the program's end means a focus of the lawsuit "is no longer an issue."

Jones, the attorney for the lawyers' committee, told Blake Monday that additional money and upgraded facilities would not be enough to desegregate Maryland's historically black universities.

"It's easier to do money. It's easier to do facilities," he said, "but the stigma that's attached on account of the state's discrimination, you're not breaking through that."

Jones and his team are demanding academic programs be phased out of or transferred from UMBC, Towson University, the University of Baltimore and University of Maryland University College.

They want a program in homeland security, with about 31 students last fall, to be transferred from Towson to Coppin. And they want a computer engineering program, with about 200 students, moved from UMBC to Morgan State.

Smith, the attorney for the state, said the programs "are not chess pieces that can be moved around the board."

He questioned whether programs would be successful at other schools.

"Maybe if you're lucky, and the sun shines, and God looks in favor on the plaintiffs' proposal, maybe you can start it someplace else."

Both sides are to present plans on how best to remedy the history of segregation. Blake has scheduled at least three weeks for the trial.

"I need to be persuaded by whatever side," she said Monday, "that the remedy proposed makes sense."

tprudente@baltsun.com

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