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Consultant’s report criticizes how Maryland higher education officials assess competing academic programs, calls for transparency

A recent report commissioned by the Maryland General Assembly sharply criticized the state’s process for assessing new academic programs at the state’s colleges and universities and recommended a number of changes.

The report, developed by an outside consultant, said the Maryland Higher Education Commission, the state body charged with overseeing policy for the state’s colleges and universities, needs to develop a more transparent, consistent policy for institutions objecting to the creation of similar academic programs elsewhere

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The commission “has been using the program review process to address historic inequities in campus resources among the [historically Black institutions] and to help them attract a more diverse student body,” the report said. “It does not put students’ needs first. It creates barriers to innovation and does not support thriving institutions. It is not transparent nor predictable, nor is it based on evaluated evidence. It certainly does not stimulate interinstitutional collaboration, nor is it consistent with Maryland’s statewide plan.”

Calvin and Tina Tyler Hall on Morgan State University's Northeast Baltimore campus houses student service and administrative support functions such as admissions, financial aid and human resources.

The issue of competing academic programs was the root of a long-running dispute between Maryland’s four historically Black colleges and universities and the state that resulted in a 2021 settlement that awards $555 million to those schools. Alumni and supporters of Coppin State and Morgan State universities in Baltimore, Bowie State University and the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore, had sued in 2006, alleging the state made it difficult for them to compete with Maryland’s other public higher education institutions.

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In the wake of that settlement, the General Assembly directed the Department of Legislative Services to hire a consultant to assess the Maryland Higher Education Commission’s ability to review proposed academic programs.

The resulting report by the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems was released Aug. 12 and found that the commission does not have clear guidelines for how a university should go about objecting to the creation of a similar or duplicate academic program at a fellow institution.

The report by the Colorado-based nonprofit consultancy found that the commission was likely to sustain any objection “regardless of the strength of the evidence accompanying the objection.”

It noted that the commission’s staff has not considered locational difference to be reason enough to approve a similar academic program elsewhere. Rather, staff has sustained objection that argued an academic program did not need to be duplicated because it could be accessed online, which, the report said, fails to account for students who do not have online access or who prefer face-to-face classes.

“MHEC’s first come-first serve treatment of program approval has contributed to an atmosphere of distrust among the institutions,” the report says. “The stakeholders attributed this in part to MHEC’s system of allowing anyone to object to new program proposals. There were cases described in which an objection was raised to a new program, MHEC sustaining the objection, and the objecting institution then hiring the faculty who were working at the institution that had proposed the new program.”

Morgan State, the state’s largest historically Black school, has objected to other institutions’ academic proposals 11 times over the past five years, more than any other school, the legislative report found. Not all objections were approved, but Morgan State won six of them.

Morgan State officials did not respond to a request for comment on the report.

Behind Morgan, the University of Maryland, Baltimore, and the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore, each objected to six programs at other institutions between 2017 and 2022, followed by Coppin State, with four objections. Both UMES and Coppin are historically Black, while UMB is not.

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In a statement, Coppin State said: “We are reviewing the findings of this report and look forward to collaborating with our many partners in continuously improving higher education for students and families throughout Maryland,” says a statement from Coppin State.

UMES spokesman Earl Holland Jr. echoed Coppin State, saying campus leaders are reviewing the report and looking forward to future collaborations.

Most objections to new academic programs came in the health field during the five years covered by the legislative report.

Such high-demand programs “face unusually high barriers to approval and may be limiting the extent to which institutions are able to respond to state [employment] needs,” the report said.

The report recommends that the Maryland Higher Education Commission work to increase collaboration and foster more trust among the state’s institutions to meet both students’ and the state’s needs, especially in light of a project decline in high school graduation numbers statewide that will increase competition for students.

The report further suggests that the commission should work with colleges and universities to define their operational missions and establish measurable three-year goals. That “would be a more productive way to strengthen [historically Black institutions] and help them meet their modern goals,” the report said.

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