It will take more than cash to make the problems at the heart of Md.'s HBCU lawsuit go away

The letter from Gov. Larry Hogan’s administration to the Legislative Black Caucus saying he wants to finally settle the long-running lawsuit by supporters of Maryland’s four historically black colleges and universities — and is willing to put $100 million into the effort over 10 years — is welcome news. But the plaintiffs’ lead attorney is right: This isn’t a write-a-check kind of problem. We are continually reminded of the profound and lasting effects of Maryland’s legacy of segregation, and even if the state is able to muster enough money to make this lawsuit go away, it will take much more to address the underlying problems.

On the simplest level, it is impossible to know what exactly will satisfy U.S. District Judge Catherine Blake, who is overseeing this case. In November, she rejected the proposed remedies of both the state and the coalition of HBCU supporters and set out a process for appointing a special master who will be charged with overseeing the creation of new, high-demand programs at Morgan State University, Coppin State UniversityBowie State University and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore. What those might be and what it would cost to establish them, and to fund the marketing, student recruitment and financial aid programs that Judge Blake’s order requires, is anybody’s guess.

Judge Blake’s rulings in the case have focused specifically on steps the state took over decades that, she concluded, had the impact of luring white students away from the HBCUs — chiefly, the duplication at historically white institutions of high-demand programs already in existence at HBCUs. The remedy to that entails a difficult discussion about the role, character, culture and tradition of these schools. What does it mean to be an HBCU at a time when its federally mandated goal is to increase the percentage of whites on campus? Can that be achieved without changing these schools’ identities?

Meanwhile, we’ve been presented with evidence that issues of race in higher education aren’t confined to the HBCUs. Coverage last month of a report finding the disparity between the percentage of black Maryland public high school graduates and the percentage of black students who enroll at the University of Maryland College Park was the sixth largest of any flagship institution in the country prompted a response Monday from UM President Wallace Loh. While acknowledging the university’s need to do more to foster diversity and outlining steps he is already taking, Mr. Loh set about quibbling with the terms of the study until he had redefined the problem into near nothingness. If you consider the percentage of in-state students at UM who are black and take as your starting point not the proportion of Maryland high school graduates are black but rather the percentage of UM applicants who are, things look pretty good, he argues.

The reaction on campus has been harsh. The editorial board of The Diamondback, the school newspaper, blasted Mr. Loh for his “blase attitude toward [UM’s] stagnating diversity.” Noting the killing of a visiting Bowie State student, for which a UM student is now being charged with a hate crime; the too frequent appearance of nooses and swastikas on campus; and other racially insensitive incidents large and small, the paper asks why the university “shifts the blame for low black enrollment onto external forces or even black students themselves … rather than evaluating what it may be doing wrong.” Others questioned the university’s financial commitment to programs to help black students enroll and succeed and accused the administration of seeking to placate donors by assuring them everything is fine rather than forthrightly dealing with a campus culture many African American students find alienating. The transformation of the identity of Maryland’s historically white flagship campus from the days of segregation to an ideal of integration is clearly far from complete.

The question we should be addressing is not what it will take to make one long-running federal case go away. It’s what it will take to provide all students, regardless of race, geography, socio-economics and so on, not just with the theoretical opportunity for the education that best suits their needs and potential but with the actual realization of it. Difficult has it has been to resolve the HBCU lawsuit, that will be much harder.

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