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4th Circuit judges say Maryland HBCU lawsuit should be settled, set mediation deadline of April 30

A 12-year-old lawsuit that advocates have called the most important higher education desegregation case in decades “can and should be settled,” according to a panel of judges on the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The case has pitted a coalition of advocates* of historically black colleges against Maryland’s higher education commission. Representatives supporting the state’s four HBCUs — Morgan State, Coppin State, Bowie State and the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore — accused the state of fostering segregation by allowing well-funded academic programs at traditionally white universities to undermine similar ones at their schools.

Despite a 2013 court ruling that found Maryland’s actions indeed perpetuated segregation, the two sides have struggled to agree on a remedy, and the state eventually took the case to the U.S. Court of Appeals. A panel of judges heard arguments last month and issued an order Wednesday saying they are “of the firm conviction” that the case should be settled.

If not, the judges 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 instructed the two parties to work toward a mediated settlement that will be submitted to the 4th Circuit. The judges said the mediation should wrap up by April 30, with progress reports every month until then.

“We’re not there yet,” said attorney Jon Greenbaum, who is representing the coalition backing the HBCUs. Still, he said, the court’s order “made clear that they think this case should be settled, that it’s a serious case and that the parties need to find a way to resolve it.”

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

Shareese DeLeaver-Churchill, a spokeswoman for Gov. Larry Hogan, said in a statement that the administration reached out to the plaintiffs in an effort resolve this matter prior to the ruling by the 4th Circuit.

“We remain interested in reaching an agreement that will conclude the case in a way that is fair and equitable for Maryland’s college students,” she said.

State leaders have been putting increased pressure on the parties to bring the case to an end. It was one of the top priorities last year for the state’s legislative black caucus — but to no avail. Gov. Larry Hogan also signaled last year his desire to end the legal battle, saying he was open to spending as much as $100 million to settle the suit.

Lawyers representing the interests of the HBCUs, together dubbed the Coalition for Equity and Excellence in Maryland Higher Education, previously proposed transferring some academic programs offered at traditionally white universities to the historically black schools. They called for dozens of new programs — many that would be considered “unique or in high demand” — to be developed at HBCUs, allowing them to foster distinct identities and attract quality students of all races.

They also wanted more money to enhance existing programs, ramp up marketing efforts and provide additional scholarships. The legal team estimated that it would cost several hundred million dollars to remedy past wrongs and chart an equitable path forward for the historically black schools.

The state’s lawyers proposed spending far less money on marketing, multicultural centers and scholarships aimed at boosting diversity at the state's HBCUs.

Hogan said his $100 million offer would supplement the state’s support for HBCUs over a 10-year period. It’s a “serious, multi-year commitment which we believe goes well beyond what the law requires,” his chief legal counsel wrote in a February letter.

Greenbaum said that figure, split between four schools over a decade, “doesn’t make much of a difference.”

The 4th Circuit judges said in their ruling that “neither party has a realistic appreciation of the strengths and weaknesses of their respective claims and contentions.”

Court-ordered mediation has failed before.

Michael Jones, another lawyer representing the HBCU coalition, said he hopes the judges’ statements force the state to “come to the table with a renewed sense of urgency.” He said he’s glad they set a April 30 deadline.

“We really need to have a shot clock here,” Jones said. “It lights a fire under the process.”

Other supporters of Maryland’s HBCUs agreed.

Longtime Baltimore civil rights leader Marvin L. "Doc" Cheatham said he’s tired of waiting for historically black colleges to get their due. He said he’s been fighting for equitable funding since he was a Coppin student, picketing around campus back in 1968.

For too long, he and others argue, HBCUs have been denied the chance to attract students of other races because their academic programs were copied and offered by traditionally white schools. In the 1970s, the state’s four historically black institutions had white student populations of about 20 percent. By 2009, they had plummeted to an average of around 5 percent.

The case was sparked by a 2005 decision by the Maryland Higher Education Commission to approve a joint MBA program between Towson University and the University of Baltimore. Officials at Morgan State said this new program threatened their school’s MBA offering, and would deter students from enrolling there to take advantage of it. Towson and UB officials ended the joint program in 2015, but the case has continued.

“This case needs to be settled,” Cheatham said. “It’s gone on for too long. The four schools need to be made whole as quickly as they can. Justice delayed is justice denied.”

trichman@baltsun.com

twitter.com/TaliRichman


UPDATES:

6:45 p.m. This story was updated with a statement from a spokeswoman for Gov. Larry Hogan.

This article has been updated. An earlier version incorrectly referred to the plaintiffs as a coalition of the HBCUs.
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