A long-lasting lawsuit seeking to better fund and protect programs at four historically black colleges and universities in Maryland is again at an impasse after court-ordered mediation failed.
A long-lasting lawsuit seeking to better fund and protect programs at four historically black colleges and universities in Maryland is again at an impasse after court-ordered mediation failed.

Court-ordered mediation in a case that’s pitted supporters of historically black colleges against the state of Maryland for 13 years has ended without resolution once again.

A coalition of advocates accused the state in 2006 of fostering segregation by allowing well-funded academic programs at traditionally white institutions to undermine similar ones at four historically black institutions: Morgan State University and Coppin State University in Baltimore, Bowie State University, and the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore.

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In the more than a decade since the coalition first filed its lawsuit — which members have called the most important higher education desegregation case in decades — attempts to settle have repeatedly failed.

The Coalition for Equity and Excellence in Maryland Higher Education wants funding to enable the state’s four HBCUs to develop unique, in-demand academic programs that would help them foster distinct identities and attract students of all races. Lawyers previously estimated it would cost several hundred million dollars to do that, along with ramping up marketing efforts and paying for more scholarships.

The state has resisted, offering more modest proposals.

Earlier this year, a panel of judges on the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the case “can and should be settled" and ordered the two sides to mediation. If no resolution could be reached, they wrote, “the parties will likely condemn themselves to endless years of acrimonious, divisive and expensive litigation that will only work to the detriment of higher education in Maryland.”

The judges asked for a mediated settlement by April 30 — later extended to July 29. No agreement was reached as of Monday’s deadline, a lawyer for the coalition confirmed, sending the case back to the 4th Circuit to consider next steps.

It’s unclear when another ruling will come.

“We’re disappointed that this mediation failed,” said Michael Jones, who represents the HBCU advocates. “The plaintiffs are hopeful this case can be resolved as soon as possible, since justice delayed is justice denied.”

A spokeswoman for the Maryland attorney general’s office declined to comment.

Resolving the case remains a priority for the Legislative Black Caucus, said Democratic Del. Darryl Barnes, its chairman. He’s “disappointed in the outcome that things have stalled again,” but plans to meet with other caucus members and Republican Gov. Larry Hogan to discuss how to move forward.

He’s focused on two aspects of the case: how to address program duplication and how to secure the funding to effectively do so.

At the heart of the coalition’s case is the belief that HBCUs have been denied the chance to attract students of other races because their academic programs were copied and offered by traditionally white schools with more funding. The lawsuit was sparked by a 2005 decision by the Maryland Higher Education Commission to approve a joint master of business administration program between Towson University and the University of Baltimore — which the coalition members saw as a threat to an MBA already offered at Morgan State.

In the 1970s, the state’s four HBCUs had white student populations of about 20 percent. That plummeted to an average of around 5 percent by 2009.

U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Blake ruled in 2013 that the state’s actions indeed perpetuated segregation and later, during a remedial trial, ordered the two sides develop a plan of action.

The state and the coalition have struggled since then to find middle ground. The 4th Circuit judges believe “neither party has a realistic appreciation of the strengths and weaknesses of their respective claims and contentious.”

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Coalition lawyers previously estimated it will cost several hundred million dollars to develop “unique or in high demand” academic programs at HBCUs, advertise them to potential students and provide more robust financial aid. They want protections to keep these programs from being duplicated.

Those representing the state have suggested devoting far less money toward diversifying the HBCUs through multicultural centers, marketing and scholarships.

The specifics of what was proposed behind closed doors during mediation are confidential, Jones said.

Hogan said in 2018 that he’s open to spending up to $100 million over a 10-year period to settle the lawsuit. Advocates say that number is insufficient.

After the mediation deadline passed, a spokeswoman for the governor said “the administration is always open to discussions in an effort to settle this case in a fair and equitable manner.”

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a Democrat, has proposed ideas for how to resolve the lawsuit, including giving Bowie State money to establish a law school and giving Morgan State funding to purchase additional land.

Barnes said the two sides need to compromise in a way both can stomach. When the General Assembly takes the issue up again, he said the caucus will have to balance it with other high-dollar priorities, including a $2 billion plan to boost school construction funding over the next decade.

The eventual number reached in the HBCU case, he said, “may not be one we’re overjoyed by, but something we can live with.”

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