UB, Towson end joint MBA program as court considers remedies for black schools

Some want to merge Morgan State University and the University of Baltimore to fix decades of segregation.

The University of Baltimore and Towson University are ending a 9-year-old joint Master of Business Administration degree program that sparked a lawsuit over a lack of investment in Maryland's historically black colleges.

State officials would not say whether court proceedings prompted the decision to phase out the program, which had been criticized for unfairly competing with Morgan State University's MBA offering. But it comes as state higher-education leaders are proposing a $10 million program pairing historically black schools with more diverse public institutions to reverse a history of segregation and satisfy a judge's 2013 ruling in the case.

Advocates for the state's historically black colleges and universities say that plan is inadequate — they are calling for Morgan State University to absorb the University of Baltimore and for historically black institutions to take on a host of new programs, including nearly a dozen that would be transplanted from schools like UB, Towson and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

The contrasting plans come two years after U.S. District Judge Catherine Blake ordered the two sides to come together in mediation to remedy what she called a history of inequality and unfair competition for Maryland's four historically black schools, whose student bodies remain predominantly black.

A coalition of alumni from the four schools, which filed the lawsuit in 2006, said the investment is even longer overdue. The state struck an agreement with the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights in 2000 in which it pledged to add unique and popular programs at historically black universities.

Now resolution rests in Blake's hands.

Leaders on both sides of the debate say either of the two proposals could be disastrous. UB President Kurt Schmoke and UMBC President Freeman Hrabowski said in court documents that the drastic changes the coalition is requesting would set back the state's higher-education system.

"Losing the heart of its engineering programs would profoundly and negatively alter UMBC's fundamental character, jeopardizing the university's role in producing knowledge workers for the state's economy," Hrabowski said in an affidavit filed in federal court.

But Morgan State President David Wilson said the state's proposed $10 million pairing program isn't enough to transform his campus into the comprehensive, urban research university he wants it to be.

"I haven't seen much that is transformational in what the state is putting forth," Wilson said. "It's not even close."

The lawsuit was filed after the Maryland Higher Education Commission approved the joint UB/Towson MBA program in 2005 over objections from Morgan State and others. The program allows students to take classes on both the Baltimore and Towson campuses and online. About 500 students are enrolled, 80 percent of whom work full time.

Morgan officials had argued that the program would draw students — white students, in particular — from its own MBA program, which had already seen its white student population plummet since UB began offering MBA degrees in the 1970s.

State higher-education officials would not answer questions whether the decision to discontinue the UB/Towson program was related to the lawsuit. UB spokesman Chris Hart said in a statement that a memorandum of understanding establishing the program "expired on its own terms" Oct. 1. UB will continue offering MBA degrees and "will pursue new collaborations related to the MBA with Towson and other public universities in Maryland," he said. A Towson spokeswoman could not be reached.

Current students in the joint program will be able to complete it as it has been offered, but new applications are being taken only for UB's stand-alone program.

In a filing in federal court, state officials said the decision to end the joint MBA means "a major focus" of the lawsuit "is no longer an issue."

The rest of the state's proposal to bring diversity and equality to the historically black schools entails investing in "collaborative academic programs" and launching summer programs for high schoolers at the predominantly black schools to help recruit applicants.

The proposed Fund for Collaborative Academic Programs would pay for joint or dual degree programs at historically black schools and other institutions. Blake had encouraged such partnerships in her ruling, pointing to successful collaborations between the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, a historically black campus, and Salisbury University that prevented program duplication and increased diversity at UMES.

A series of four Governor's Early College Summer Academies — one each at Morgan, Coppin State University, UMES and Bowie State University — would meanwhile expose diverse groups of high-achieving high-schoolers to those historically black universities and "state-of-the-art facilities," state officials said.

University System of Maryland officials said in a statement that the proposal would effectively add diversity to the predominantly black campuses without harming students at other institutions.

A spokeswoman for the Maryland Higher Education Commission, which reviews proposals for new programs at state institutions, declined to comment because the commission did not participate in drafting the plan. A spokesman for the attorney general's office also declined to comment because the case is still pending.

The coalition's proposals, filed in court in May, are significantly further-reaching.

The group argues that merging Morgan State and UB would "establish Morgan as the most distinctive public university in Baltimore, serving students of all races from the baccalaureate to the doctoral level." It also suggests giving Morgan academic niches it lacks but is positioned to tackle, like entrepreneurship, urban environmental issues and engineering.

Its plan seeks to develop academic niches across the four historically black universities by adding nearly 50 new degree programs, transferring 11 programs from other state institutions and creating 13 new joint degree programs. The proposal calls for building specialties in aging studies at Coppin State, computer sciences and networking at Bowie State, and engineering and aviation at UMES.

It's not clear how the impasse between state officials and the university coalition will be resolved. Blake declined to be interviewed. Jones said procedural deadlines extend into December, and after that, Blake's options could include ordering specific remedies, asking for more information or appointing a third party to navigate a path forward.

Michael D. Jones, a lawyer with Kirkland and Ellis in Washington and spokesman for the coalition, criticized the state's plan, filed this month.

"It's probably less than the state has spent defending the case," he said of the $10 million investment. "I'm not the slightest bit impressed with their last-minute plan."

Jones said such changes should have been made over the past 15 years, after the state signed the civil rights agreement to desegregate the state's colleges and universities. The agreement emphasized investment in historically black institutions, particularly Coppin State, but did not settle disputes over program duplication.

Eliminating the duplication likely won't be easy. Hrabowski, Schmoke and others said in court documents that losing popular programs would cost institutions millions in revenue and confuse and upset students and prospective applicants. The coalition suggests transferring programs in computer, electrical and civil engineering and information systems from UMBC to Morgan State, for example, a move Hrabowski said would "eviscerate" enrollment in UMBC's engineering school, threaten its accreditation and cost the institution $15.5 million.

"Limiting the number of institutions that could offer a particular academic program would result in reduced opportunities for all Maryland students," University System of Maryland spokesman Mike Lurie said in a statement.

University mergers have been used as tools to remedy segregation in other states, though with mixed results. Tennessee State University and the University of Tennessee's Nashville campus were merged under a court order in 1979. Georgia officials ordered historically black Albany State University this month to absorb the larger Darton State College.

In other cases, increased investment in historically black institutions has helped them better compete, such as in Mississippi, where the schools were awarded a $500 million settlement in 2002, said Marybeth Gasman, a professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania.

Gasman said Maryland's treatment of historically black universities is viewed as poor relative to other states.

"Maryland is one of the most pervasive states in terms of their steadfast attempts to uphold segregation and withhold resources from HBCUs," she said in an email.

Wilson, Morgan's president, said the status quo is unacceptable.

While university system officials say 56 percent of black students at four-year state schools do not attend historically black universities, at schools like Morgan the lack of diversity is blatant — 76 of Morgan's 84 academic programs have fewer than eight white students.

"Objective eyes will look at this and say, 'How in the world did this happen?'" Wilson said. "And now the state has an opportunity to correct it."

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