SALISBURY — — Martin Ngwa, a student at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, plans to go into social work after graduation — though his school doesn't offer the major.
Thanks to an unusual partnership between UMES, an historically black institution, and Salisbury University, its traditionally white neighbor, Ngwa is earning dual degrees in sociology and social work.
The opportunity to take classes on both Eastern Shore campuses is the result of several decades of collaboration — a partnership that was praised this week in a federal court opinion that found some Maryland policies still promote "separate but equal" colleges and universities.
The schools, founded years ago as segregated facilities roughly 12 miles apart, are still largely split by race. But UMES, where 15 percent of the students identify themselves as white, is the most integrated of any of the state's historically black schools because of the alliance.
"It's always been my dream to help people," said Ngwa. "With this program, I'm getting even more exposure to different ideas about the field through all the different people in the programs."
A lack of collaboration at the other public, historically black institutions — Bowie, Coppin and Morgan state universities — contributes to poor enrollment and diversity because they lose students to white counterparts that have duplicated their programs, wrote U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Blake. White enrollment at those schools was below 5 percent, according to Blake.
UMES has two dozen distinct programs that Salisbury doesn't, including golf management and hotel and restaurant management. The schools also work together in many areas. They share resources and research projects. They allow students from one institution to attend classes and events at the other, and they work to avoid duplicating their partner's specialty programs, so each maintains a separate identity to attract students.
Their efforts could serve as a model for other state schools as they try to rid themselves of the last vestiges of segregation in higher education. The judge, in her ruling, urged historically black institutions and state officials into mediation.
UMES and Salisbury officials said it takes hard work. Their partnership hasn't always been an easy or natural bond, and challenges — cultural, logistical and financial — persist.
"People have to really want to do this" for it to work, said Karen Verbeke, director of teacher education at UMES. She's worked there for two dozen years, nurturing a collaborative Master of Arts in teaching program between the universities. "It takes time to do this, it takes energy to do this, and people have to be willing to see what are the greater goods."
Defining roles, missions
Though the U.S. Supreme Court struck down "separate but equal" facilities as unconstitutional in 1954, Maryland clung to the segregated system for years afterward.
In 1969, the U.S. Department of Education notified the state that it was one of 10 still operating a "racially segregated system of education," and several task forces and plans would be developed over the next several decades to work on solving the problem.
Meanwhile, the two Eastern Shore schools were struggling. They were geographically isolated, each was historically underfunded compared with its peers, and their futures were in question. A proposal to merge the schools was floated in the mid-1970s, but the legislature declined to vote on it without more study.
"It turned out that it may have been the best thing that ever happened to UMES," the late William P. Hytche, who was president of UMES at the time, wrote in "Polishing the Diamond," a history of the school.
An attorney named John W.T. "Jack" Webb was charged with heading a local task force to evaluate a potential merger. Webb's team ultimately rejected the idea in 1977, in part to preserve UMES' racial identity.
Instead, it recommended an operating framework that would set the tone for today's collaboration, by ensuring that the universities complemented each other more than they competed.
"We believe the educational needs of the Lower Eastern Shore, at this stage of the area's history, require two separate institutions, but with specific roles and missions clearly defined to prevent duplication of resources and to maximize choice based on the quality of program," Webb's commission wrote.
It was a philosophy inherent to most desegregation plans, though only the Eastern Shore schools would eventually pull it off, largely because of their geographic isolation.
Elsewhere, large investments in traditionally white schools — particularly Towson University and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, Blake wrote — would offset gains at historically black schools like Coppin and Morgan in Baltimore, allowing a segregated system to endure.
"It's tough to dismantle a dual system," said Clifton F. Conrad, a professor of higher education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He studied Maryland's system as an expert witness during the trial that led to the judge's recent ruling. The case was filed in 2006 by students and alumni of the state's historically black colleges and universities, alleging that racist policies remained.
"People like things as they are, don't they?" Conrad said.
Differences on campuses
There are stark differences between the two Eastern Shore schools.
Some of the UMES facilities are badly in bad of renovation. Historic buildings appear worn on the outside, with dull paint and eroded brick. Inside, students walk along dim, narrow hallways. The classrooms are small and crowded with faded carpets and cramped desks attached to chairs.
By contrast, the interiors at Salisbury boast bright, cheerful maroon-and-gold trimmings and polished walkways. The spaces are expansive and warmly lit, with large classrooms, updated furniture and cushioned seating.
The discrepancies between the schools can be traced to their origins — one as an oft-neglected school for African-Americans specializing in agriculture, home economics and the mechanical arts, and the other a teachers college for whites. Salisbury also has had some generous donors over the years.
"We still have many needs … and we're working to address those as best we can," UMES President Juliette Bell said.
She's relying on the collaboration to help both institutions grow and meet the community's need.
"We are somewhat distinct here on the Eastern Shore in that our location kind of forces us to become partners, because we are isolated from the rest of the state and from the other higher-education institutions in the state," Bell said. "We've kind of built those alliances between us because we need each other to help us to survive."
Avoiding 'collision course'
After Webb's task force came out with its report in 1977, presidents at the two schools embraced the recommendations, said Ronnie Holden, vice president for administrative affairs at UMES.
"They got together and they developed a plan … that kept us off a collision course," said Holden, who's been at UMES for 37 years.
The cooperative spirit continued into the 1980s, when a mission and programmatic strategy became clear, and the 1990s, when the schools provided transportation for students who commute between them.
"They were determined that these two institutions work together and move forward," Holden said.
Today, the joint efforts include two dual degree programs. One in biology and marine/environmental sciences has won at least two awards for collaboration, including a 1998 award for collaboration among a traditionally white school and a traditionally black school.
The other dual degree is the program in sociology and social work that Ngwa, the UMES senior, participates in. He said that the suffering he saw in his native Cameroon, an impoverished African country, made him want to help others through social work.
He splits his time between campuses, focusing on sociology at UMES and social work at Salisbury.
"One of the things that we really wanted was students from both institutions to share a classroom experience so that they could begin to talk to each other and learn about people who are different from them," said Deborah Mathews, chair of Salisbury's social work department. "That difference could be racial, it could also be urban, rural."
The schools also conduct joint training, administrators drive to conferences together, faculty and students collaborate on research projects, and students in the health programs even share cadavers.
"We've got a really healthy exchange," said Janet Dudley-Eshbach, president of Salisbury.
Still, there are challenges. One year, the schools started on different days, which caused a logistical nightmare for some students. Some staffers prefer to work independently, and there's a tremendous amount of time involved to coordinate efforts.
And for some students, the institutional differences can be difficult to navigate. Heather Goldsborough, a 21-year-old white freshman at UMES, said it was "a bit of a culture shock" for her to attend a historically black university, but that she has been treated kindly by the school community.
"Things are not perfect, both our institutions have problems," Dudley-Eshbach said, adding that collaboration "is both the most effective and efficient way to operate and serve the state of Maryland, and we think that we can achieve more collaborating than if we compete."
Select UMES/Salisbury collaborations
The schools offer dual-degree programs in biology and environmental/marine science, and in social work/sociology, as well as a collaborative Master of Arts in teaching.
The Salisbury Film Society, hosted by Salisbury University, offers complementary tickets to University of Maryland Eastern Shore students.
Music faculty from UMES have been guest artists at Salisbury and conducted master classes.
Salisbury and UMES have collaborated on winter-term trips to Paris.
Salisbury lacrosse teams have participated in a study with UMES physical therapy and education faculty on concussion management.
University of Maryland Eastern Shore
Origins: Soon after its founding, it became the land-grant university for the state's African-Americans, emphasizing agriculture, home economics and the mechanical arts.
Enrollment, fall 2012: 3,758 undergraduates, and 696 graduate students
Racial breakdown: 69 percent African-American, 15 percent white
Pell Grant recipients: 59 percent of the undergraduates
Origins: Teachers college
Enrollment, fall 2012: 7,969 undergraduates, 688 graduate students
Racial breakdown: 78 percent white, 11 percent African-American
Pell Grant recipients: 24 percent of the undergraduates