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College competition: Is more really more?

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Maryland higher education is passing through a robust period of competition for state dollars, the best students and highly qualified faculty. While this competitiveness is most obvious in new methods of teaching and learning, it has also become a fact of life in the development of new graduate and undergraduate programs.

Towson University, where I teach, has developed several new, exciting programs. While the Maryland Higher Education Commission has approved many of them, it has denied several because of objections by Morgan State University.

Morgan has persuaded the commission to deny undergraduate programs in finance marketing and management at Towson, as well as a master's degree in comparative world history. Even now, it has challenged plans for a doctorate in education because it claims that the program closely parallels one on its campus. Why shouldn't Towson University have a doctoral program in education when it has been training teachers longer than any other college or university in Maryland, and today produces the most teachers in the state?

In addition, MHEC is weighing approval of a doctoral program in business for the University of Baltimore. Morgan has objected to it as an unreasonable duplication of one of its own programs. Each of these programs, it claims, conflict either with what Morgan is now doing, has done in the past, or may do sometime in the future.

Should the Morgan challenge hold up, the educational and economic costs may be incalculable. We need highly trained educational leaders with doctorates to lead our schools, and well-trained business leaders to envision the forces that drive today's and tomorrow's industry. The need is great enough to justify such programs at more than one university.

Among the ammunition Morgan uses to defend its position is an extremely narrow interpretation of a 1992 U.S. Supreme Court case, United States v. Fordice. In Fordice, the court outlined remedies for reversing a pattern of continued segregation at Mississippi's state universities. By duplicating the programs of predominantly white universities at historically black schools, Mississippi had effectively discouraged students from switching over.

If a state had experienced a long history of segregation and was persisting in promoting a dual system, the court said, duplication may (and I emphasize "may") violate the 14th amendment's equal protection clause. But there are several reasons why the Fordice decision is inapt when applied to Maryland.

First, Justice Byron White clearly drafted the decision in broad terms, focusing on several factors, not only program duplication. Moreover, the court's reasoning concerning duplication goes far beyond the interpretation that both Morgan and the Maryland Higher Education Commission have given it. To compare the Maryland university environment to that of Mississippi, especially in a case that actually began in 1975, is preposterous.

For ten years now, Morgan has received a level of state funding that is the envy of many of its sister institutions. Just last month, to celebrate Morgan's great progress, its Board Chairman Dallas R. Evans wrote the following remarks in these pages of the Baltimore Sun: "Morgan now ranks among the leading campuses in the state in the number of specialized accreditations held by its academic programs."

And Towson University, for example, has made tremendous strides in recruiting minority students, faculty and staff, designing retention programs, and helping students, including minorities, graduate on time.

The Fordice case clearly pertains to a particular set of circumstances in Mississippi in the 1970s and 80s. Not one of those circumstances applies to Maryland higher education today.

No one argues the essential point in Fordice: the need to dismantle segregated higher education. In its opinion, the court looked to three areas in determining if segregation had been extinguished: admissions programs, mission statements, and duplicate programs.

The sort of admissions problems the court found in Mississippi, where one statewide policy had perpetuated segregation, do not apply to Maryland, where individual universities control their own admissions policies. As for mission statements, the court found that Mississippi's historically black institutions had been granted limited research and degree programs "geared toward its urban setting." That is clearly not the case here.

Morgan's undergraduate and graduate programs in science, engineering, communications studies, computer and information sciences, biological sciences, psychology and education are all testaments that its programming is far broader than that of an urban university. Moreover, Morgan graduates go on to study for advanced degrees, by its own testimony, at Harvard, Cornell, Stanford, MIT, Johns Hopkins and other prestigious research universities.

In addition, the mission statements in Mississippi illegally distinguished between the white institutions, all of which were designated as "comprehensive," and the black institutions, all of which were designated as "regional." In Maryland, Morgan, Towson, Bowie, Coppin, Salisbury and Frostburg are all, without regard to race, designated as comprehensive institutions, providing undergraduate education in the arts and sciences with professional training at the bachelor's master's and doctoral level.

Finally, and most critically, the key issue is program duplication. Here, Morgan and MHEC have so narrowly defined "program duplication" that they have turned the Fordice decision on its head. In Mississippi, program duplication was prima facie evidence of the state's attempt to steer students to institutions according to race.

No such evidence exists in Maryland, where universities have generated new programs to provide educational and professional opportunities for our students. Maryland colleges and universities do not design programs to "steer" students of a particular race toward or away from any one institution. The goal is to develop programs that benefit all students -- white and black -- and also benefit the state's economy.

Besides, program duplication is acceptable, the court said, if there is a "sound educational justification" for it.

In the interest of fairness alone, it is time to allow Towson and other universities the same opportunities that Morgan has had for the past 10 years. Board Chairman Evans wrote in his Sun article that "Morgan's success is testament to the broad support the university enjoys with the governor, the leadership of the Maryland General Assembly, key committee chairs, and other prominent members of the Senate and the house of Delegates. These individuals work with the Board of Regents, alumni, community supporters, administrators, faculty and staff to help ensure that Morgan State University continues to grow and prosper."

Morgan's is not the story of an institution under duress, but one that has enjoyed unparallelled support in Maryland. New construction alone on the Morgan campus is enviable. As Mr. Evans pointed out recently, the university's five-year facilities plan contains nearly $200 million in additional projects.

By any measure, according to its own testimony, Morgan is doing extremely well as an independent state institution. Certainly, the state has not short-changed its growth and development, and Towson's programs will not hold back its progress. Maryland, in short, is not Mississippi.

Competition is a good thing in higher education: it is time for true competition to take place at all levels among Maryland's state institutions.

It is time for all of them to develop the finest programs to educate the next generation of our students who will take leadership roles throughout the state.

Jack Fruchtman Jr., who directs the Program in Law and American Civilization and teaches constitutional law and politics, chairs the Towson University Senate.

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