It is unthinkable that one or both of the historically blackinstitutions of higher education in Baltimore should cease to exist.
Perhaps . . .
But there was a time in America when it was unthinkable that a black university might exist at all, until men and women of vision dared to create institutions like Coppin State College and Morgan State University and make them centers of learning and support for generations of black Americans.
This nation's historically black colleges and universities embody a proud tradition. At a time when white institutions were closed to blacks, they offered learning, nurture, hope and pride. If some were invented to perpetuate segregation, they nonetheless played a role in its abolition.
Today, historically black colleges and universities are enjoying a renaissance as talented young African-Americans who once might have attended traditionally white institutions are returning institutions like Coppin and Morgan. Enrollment at Morgan, in particular, is increasing at an impressive pace. Moreover, there is a growing need for institutions possessing the wherewithal to address the pressing issues confronting urban areas and provide real-time solutions to real-life problems.
So why would anyone suggest that two viable institutions be consolidated into one that is, to think the unthinkable?
It might help to understand the role and responsibilities of the Maryland Higher Education Commission, created by Gov. William Donald Schaefer and the General Assembly to ensure that higher education was more responsive.
Starting in 1988, the Commission began a thorough-going examination of the state's colleges and universities. Three years of work produced a substantial number of new ideas and recommendations, but the effort can be boiled down to a single concern: How can we make sure that our campuses meet the education needs of citizens and support the economic development needs of the state?
Baltimore figured prominently in the Commission's deliberations. Long the center of commerce in Maryland, the city has a substantial impact on the life and economic well-being of the state as a whole. An economically healthy and growing Baltimore can help bring prosperity to all of Maryland.
The Commission asked how we can make sure that higher education meets the needs of the citizens of Baltimore and in doing so helps strengthen the economy of Maryland as a whole. What opportunities might be created if we redirected the financial resources available for higher education in the city?
The Commission made two recommendations specifically intended to improve the graduate and professional opportunities the Baltimore area. One has to do with the need for a major research university emphasizing the sciences, particularly the health sciences.
The other recognized the importance of Morgan's role as the state's "urban university," its statewide role in increasing the educational attainment of African-Americans and the fact that neither Morgan nor Coppin has achieved the economy of scale necessary to address the needs of urban education.
Both issues have taken on increased importance because of the financial difficulties facing the state now and the need for greater efficiency in higher education in the long run. Absent substantial changes in the state's tax structure, expenditures are projected to exceed revenues by nearly $2 billion in fiscal year 2000.
This is not an isolated problem. Throughout the country, state and local governments are being forced to cut budgets. The private sector has been hit just as hard by the recession. Higher education has not been immune. Our colleges and universities have been hit especially hard by budget reductions.
Even when the current recession ends and the economy begins to improve, it is unlikely that higher education or any segment of government will experience the growth in spending that characterized the early years of the Schaefer Administration. Cost containment, innovation and a renewed emphasis on making best use of limited resources will have become permanent.
The seemingly intractable problems of urban America add a sense of urgency as we examine the advantages and disadvantages of the Commission's recommendations.
The first recommendation was that the University of Maryland Regents consider consolidating the University of Maryland Baltimore County and the University of Maryland at Baltimore into a single research university focusing on life sciences, health and technology. The resulting institution would be better positioned to meet the research and technological needs of the region. The Regents have embraced this idea.
The second recommendation was that the community should explore ways to improve the delivery of higher education in Baltimore, in light of Morgan's role as Maryland's urban university and Morgan's and Coppin's roles in urban education. The Commission has created a task force to examine a range of options for Morgan and Coppin, of which consolidation is only one. It is also, I might add, the least likely outcome.
But I believe strongly that the task force should approach the question of how we can better serve Baltimore, and particularly minority education needs, with the same courage and open-mindedness that made it possible for other Marylanders to create these two institutions. That is, with the same willingness to think the unthinkable.
After all, the city's needs and the needs of its citizens have changed in the last century. There is a genuine need for a major university that would devote its energies to the study of modern urban problems. Indeed, it may be that this idea represents the next logical step in the evolution of historically black urban institutions, in which the best become major centers of research and leaders in finding solutions to the problems of urban America.
But the decision to consolidate Morgan and Coppin would be a difficult one, requiring the full support of the community. Much of the work of the task force will involve other means of improving higher education in Baltimore. Specifically, there are four other questions the task force will address:
* First, we will look at ways to improve specific programs at both campuses without unnecessary duplication. The Commission has approved distinct mission statements for Morgan and Coppin. The task force will make recommendations about enhancements to programs in the mission statements.
* Second, we will explore the possibility of a closer working relationship between Coppin and Morgan and between the two campuses and professional and graduate programs in the Baltimore area.
Given Maryland's current financial difficulties, it is unlikely that any college or university is going to enjoy significant increases in its budget in the next few years. Budget constraints notwithstanding, the demand for academic programs will continue to increase.
The most obvious -- but far from only -- example is Baltimore's schools and the need for more and better-trained teachers. Perhaps Coppin and Morgan should explore the possibility of joining forces to create a single urban teacher education center.
* Third, we will look for ways to make sure that existing resources are used effectively and efficiently to meet citizens' education needs.
* And, finally, we will examine the impact of enhancements to both institutions over the past decade and a half. Have Coppin and Morgan received the support they need to fulfill their important missions, and have they addressed the community's priorities?
The charge to the task force is a broad one. Our mission -- above and beyond the charge -- is to ask how we can improve the quality of higher education in Baltimore City. Are our campuses attuned to the needs of people? Are we providing access to African-Americans and providing opportunities for economically disadvantaged citizens?
Our success depends on the willingness of the community to help scrutinize both institutions with fairness and honesty, asking how each might better help people and how we might help them.
Quentin R. Lawson is vice chairman of the Maryland Higher Education Commission and chairman of its Coppin-Morgan task force.