Two Bad Ideas About Black Colleges


It's amazing how often bad ideas about black people, and the institutions that serve them, get recycled. A case in point is the recent proposal by the state's higher-education secretary, Shaila Aery, to "merge" Morgan State University and Coppin State College.

Ms. Aery, a widely respected administrator, came to Maryland expressing high hopes for boosting the state's institutions to the front rank in academia. Grand plans were launched to restructure higher education, merging all public four-year institutions into a state university system akin to California's and New York's, with strengths drawn from the lessons learned in Missouri, where she came from.

Two immediate snags developed: St. Mary's College, in rural southern Maryland, and Morgan State refused to join up. Each had evolved to answer specific community needs, their presidents argued, and each was better able to address those needs outside the structure being urged. They suffered intense criticism, but persevered.

A few things happened after that. One was the dramatic debacle over mission changes and shifts of resources from professional schools at the University of Maryland at Baltimore and University of Baltimore out of the city. Augustus White, a Harvard surgeon recruited with much fanfare, resigned after repudiating that plan, and all kinds of scurrying about began. State officials reassured everyone that this had never been approved and that Peter O'Malley, head of the university's governing board, had been operating beyond his authority.

Supporters of Morgan and St. Mary's felt vindicated by what was revealed.

Today, it appears they are vindicated once again. Ms. Aery, frustrated over $70 million worth of backward steps on state colleges, has hatched a plan that incorporates two bad ideas about black institutions. One is that they "compete" for funds to educate similar groups of students. The second is the assumption that these colleges don't really do a good job, but that they could do much more for their students with no new resources. How? Magic management.

Similar assumptions permeated a consultant's report which launched a Greater Baltimore Committee challenge to higher education three years ago. A major deficiency of that report was that after acknowledging that Maryland's colleges and universities were under-funded compared to their counterparts in other states, it bashed them for not cooperating better. Failure to fund was the big ill here, not mere turf-protection, and it could not be corrected by managing better and cooperating better.

That's still true, for the rest of the state's colleges as well as black institutions.

But let's return to this idea of competition. Do Coppin and Morgan really limit each other, instead of providing complementary services? Ms. Aery notes that they both teach teachers, and calls that wasteful overlap. According to the Educational Testing Service Policy Information Center in Princeton, New Jersey, over the next 10 years the nation will need 2 million new teachers, but educators aren't sure where they will come from. Estimates of teacher shortages vary widely, but all experts agree on a shortage of minority teachers. Minority students, especially blacks, make up rising percentages of the nation's and the state's K-12 school population, but by the end of the decade blacks will provide as little as 5 percent of the teaching force.

Together, Morgan and Coppin produce two-thirds of the black teachers in Baltimore's schools and send a lion's share of black teachers out to other local districts. With more, not fewer, black teachers needed, it's less than reasonable to talk of closing down a program.

Moreover, according to Higher Education Commission figures, Morgan's 3,317 fall-1990 black student corps and Coppin's 1,413 almost equaled the 5,041 blacks attending Maryland's nine "main- stream" institutions. If these two institutions can be said to "compete," it is fair to ask whether, say, Towson State and UMBC also "compete" for white students. Each is trying to cast itself as the region's comprehensive university. Each touts its service to the region. And each wants to be first among equals.

Not fair? Of course it's not. Nor is it fair to assume Morgan and Coppin, which really do provide distinctly different programs, could be rationally considered this way.

More money is desperately needed for higher education, especially if Maryland is to have the high-tech future it wants. It should take examples from the states it admires, and put up the investment that will require. For instance, California, which gave the rest of us tax revolts, just saw its legislature pass a historic tax increase. That's because after all the dust settled over Prop 13, the state saw its abilities to provide services wane while its needs waxed heavy.

Working to make College Park the research leader it would like to be is an exemplary goal. Trying to get there by leaps of faith that taking schools which already do wonders with limited funds and merging them into an unwieldy, under-funded amoeba is likely to take everyone backward. It's also likely to start a political fight that will in the end serve no one. Time to rethink that strategy.

Garland L. Thompson writes editorials for The Sun.

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