Coppin State University in Baltimore is one of four historically black colleges and universities in Maryland that stands to benefit if a coalition of advocates working on their behalf and Gov. Larry Hogan's administration can reach a financial settlement to a court case that has dragged on for years.
Coppin State University in Baltimore is one of four historically black colleges and universities in Maryland that stands to benefit if a coalition of advocates working on their behalf and Gov. Larry Hogan's administration can reach a financial settlement to a court case that has dragged on for years.

A coalition advocating for Maryland’s four historically black universities sent a letter to elected officials Tuesday offering to settle its 13-year-old lawsuit against the state for $577 million — more than five times the governor’s last public offer.

That figure is less than Mississippi paid in a similar lawsuit, when accounting for inflation, coalition attorney Mike Jones said. In 2002, Mississippi paid more than $500 million to settle its landmark Ayers case, which successfully argued the state had denied black residents equal education opportunities by discriminating against its three HBCUs.

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Advocates call Maryland’s drawn-out legal battle the most important higher education desegregation case in decades. It hinges on the claim that state’s university system long fostered segregation by allowing well-funded academic programs at traditionally white universities to undermine similar ones at Morgan State University and Coppin State University in Baltimore, Bowie State University and the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore.

Despite a 2013 court decision finding that Maryland’s actions indeed perpetuated segregation — and a 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that stated the case “can and should be settled” — the two sides have struggled to reach a remedy. The latest round of court-ordered mediation ended in July, without a resolution.

The coalition sent a letter Tuesday to members of the Maryland General Assembly and the state’s congressional delegation, proposing the state pay $577 million, “spread over a reasonable time period."

“Hopefully, this will start up the discussion again,” Jones said.

If the parties can’t reach an agreement, the case’s future lies with the federal appeals court.

Del. Darryl Barnes, chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus, called the coalition’s proposal both “doable” and “fair.”

The Prince George’s County Democrat says he will ask members of his caucus, the state Senate president, state House speaker and representatives from the governor’s office to gather and “figure out how we’re going to come to this number and settle it."

The coalition of HBCU advocates believe past offers to be insufficient, saying it would take several hundred million dollars to make substantial change.

The money would enable HBCUs to develop unique, in-demand academic programs at each of the four HBCUs and to hire quality faculty members to run those programs. Only then, lawyers argue, will these schools be able to fairly compete with traditionally white schools and attract students of all races. In addition, the letter states, the money would be devoted to providing more scholarships and ramping up marketing efforts “to offset the state’s decades of stigmatization of the HBCUs.”

“Now is the time to bring justice to Maryland’s black colleges,” Jones wrote.

Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, indicated last year he’s open to spending up to $100 million over a 10-year period to settle the lawsuit.

Robert Scholz, the governor’s legal counsel, wrote in a February 2018 letter to the Legislative Black Caucus that that offer represented “a serious, multiyear commitment which we believes goes well beyond what the law requires.”

“Governor Hogan wants to bring this litigation to an end in a manner satisfactory to all parties, and in the best interests of all Marylanders, especially current and future HBI students," Scholz wrote.

Any other offers from the state would have been made during confidential mediation sessions.

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"We negotiated in good faith, making a generous offer and dramatically increasing that offer,” Hogan spokesman Michael Ricci said in a statement, noting that the governor has dedicated $1.15 billion in funding toward Maryland HBCUs.

A panel of 4th Circuit judges determined earlier this year the case ought to be settled. If not, 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.”

That’s part of why Jones said his firm wanted to send Tuesday’s letter. He hopes to bring discussions out into the open, and propel the debate forward publicly.

“Litigating for the next 10 years is not in the schools’ interests,” Jones said. “It’s in their interests to get the resources and programs that can make a difference.”

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