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Maryland HBCU case: A ruling without remedies

Colleges and UniversitiesJustice SystemConservationMorgan State University

A federal district court judge handed Maryland's historically black colleges and universities a partial and in many respects problematic victory last week. She denied them the monetary damages they sought but ruled that the state may not allow its traditionally white schools to unnecessarily duplicate their popular, unique academic programs. U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Blake said such duplication has the effect of perpetuating the inequalities inherent in the dual system of higher education established during the era of segregation, and thus illegally discriminates against black students.

But she did not say what the state must do about it, instead sending the parties back to mediation. Now things are about to get really ugly. The state's public universities appear on the brink of a civil war over which programs must now be dismantled or transferred to HBCUs. And the HBCUs, meanwhile, will be forced to confront some uncomfortable questions about their identities in a post-segregation world.

The ruling grew out of a 2006 lawsuit brought by students and alumni of the state's four historically black institutions of higher learning — Morgan State, Bowie State and Coppin State universities and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore. The plaintiffs argued, among other things, that the state historically has starved those schools of funding and created duplicates of their most popular programs at its traditionally white institutions, undermining their ability to attract a more diverse student population.

Judge Blake dismissed the claim that the state currently underfunds its historically black schools. Still, the ruling was hailed by the presidents of Maryland's historically black universities as a milestone in efforts to create new opportunities and resources for their campuses. Most likely, some popular programs at traditionally white institutions will be forced to close, transfer or merge under the umbrella of an HBCU. That won't happen without a fight. No university president will relish the prospect of losing a popular academic program.

Elimination of unnecessary program duplication has been a centerpiece of higher education desegregation efforts across the country, often with successful outcomes. But previous attempts to resolve the dispute in Maryland through mediation have failed, and there's no assurance that another round of such negotiations will be any more successful.

The insanity of it is this: It's a conflict that has everything to do with protecting the institutional prerogatives and egos of the schools and little to do with creating a system of colleges and universities that best meets the needs of as many of Maryland's students as possible. Maryland is in the midst of an effort to drastically expand the number of adults with college degrees, and the four HBCUs need to be an integral part of that effort. The fact that, decades after integration, they remain largely segregated diminishes their ability to contribute as much as they can to the state's goals. But it's going to take more than poaching some popular academic programs.

The state's best black students can and do go to highly selective schools like the University of Maryland and the University of Maryland Baltimore County. But white students whose academic qualifications would make them a good fit for Morgan State or Coppin State generally do not go there. Morgan State can take UMBC's engineering programs, but that doesn't mean that a high school senior who is interested in the field and can get into UMBC (typical SAT range 1130-1320) will go to Morgan (typical SAT range 810-960) regardless of his or her race. Nor is the lack of those programs the sole explanation for the fact that, 60 years after the University of Maryland admitted its first black students, Morgan remains just 3.4 percent white. (College Park, incidentally, is 12.1 percent black.)

The state needs to give its HBCUs the resources they need to succeed, not because it owes something to the institutions or to their alumni but because that is in the best interests of students of all races today and in the future. And the HBCUs need to have an honest assessment of where they now fit in with the rest of the state's universities and how they can best fulfill that role — and they need to be clear-eyed about whether their fealty to their traditional identities is hindering that effort. The HBCUs' leaders are thrilled that that the judge's decision will require the first half of that equation, but they must also recognize that it will eventually force the latter.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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Colleges and UniversitiesJustice SystemConservationMorgan State University
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