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Maryland colleges; let them compete

I commend Professor George La Noue for his careful and comprehensive analysis of the recent judicial decision concerning Maryland's historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) ("Antiquated ruling on desegregation," Oct. 27). I concur in his observations and would like to add a couple of comments.

When I came to Maryland almost a quarter century ago to join the University System of Maryland, I became engaged in a fascinating historical process. Wikipedia lists 106 HBCUs in the United States, including two- and four-year and various specialized institutions. Maryland has four four-year HBCUs. Before our nation began serious efforts to desegregate its institutions HBCUs had long and distinguished histories, during which they graduated many of our nation's black leaders. During the recent decades of desegregation, they found themselves in competition with traditionally white institutions which were now striving to attract black students. Where the HBCUs had traditionally had essentially a monopoly on talented blacks, they now found themselves in a fiercely competitive higher education environment to which they are still struggling to adapt.

I have consistently heard two arguments about what is needed by the HBCUs in this situation. The first is increased funding. In Maryland, they were, in fact, long underfunded compared with the other schools. Strong efforts have been made in Maryland to rectify this problem, and it has largely been solved. This was noted by Judge Catherine Blake who, according to Professor La Noue, "found that [Historically Black Institutions] had received more than their fair share of state funding per student."

The second consistent argument is that the HBCUs should have certain academic program monopolies in order to compel all students to attend them for such programs. I have often heard HBCU leaders argue that their institutions cannot be expected to compete with traditionally white institutions and that program "duplication" should be avoided. That argument was, in effect, blessed by Judge Blake. In my opinion, that solution is highly problematic and potentially very damaging to all the institutions involved. In most sectors of our society, open and fair competition in all matters is generally believed to be good, because it promotes high performance by all competitors and outstanding performances by the best. In my experience, that is certainly true of academic institutions. Some program specialization does occur in academe. MIT and Caltech are not generally noted for their power in the humanities, but that choice is theirs, not society's. Choosing which programs to "unduplicate" would be a deeply controversial and difficult challenge! I doubt anyone would suggest that there should be only one English department among all of the Baltimore universities. But, according to Professor La Noue, Judge Blake "cited the fields of environmental studies, computer science, aging studies and health care facilities management as possible new programs for HBIs." Such programs might be "new" to Judge Blake or to some HBCUs, but over the past several decades they have become common major elements of the academic world, both in Maryland and nationally. I would certainly encourage HBCUs to adopt such programs, but they will need to compete with the world, not just the schools down the road.

This "avoidance of program duplication" solution to the HBCU's problems reminds me of the possibility of solving another major national problem by forcibly transferring the Apple Corporation from Silicon Valley to Detroit. That'd be a simple solution to a big problem, right?

Donald N. Langenberg

The writer is chancellor emeritus of the University System of Maryland.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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