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Towson MBA in peril as House takes up bill

The Baltimore Sun

After considering his options for getting an MBA, Justin Jones-Fosu chose a new program at Towson University over an established one at his undergraduate college, Morgan State University.

Now, Jones-Fosu's historically black alma mater is championing a bill in Annapolis that could lead to the dismantling of Towson's MBA program. The bill is based on the argument that by allowing Towson to duplicate a program offered at nearby Morgan State, Maryland is promoting racial segregation.

"I understand the general principle, and I value the foundation that Morgan gave me," said Jones-Fosu, 25, who is black and a former student body leader at Morgan. "But to take away the choice that I have, to take away the program, really would be detrimental to my degree. ... I don't like it at all."

The legislation - which has been passed by the Senate and moves to the House of Delegates today - would require state higher education officials to reconsider their 2005 decision to allow Towson to offer a Master of Business Administration degree.

If officials allow the Towson program to continue, Morgan State could go to court to try to shut it down, a prospect that higher education officials say would be unprecedented nationally.

Supporters of the bill, including the General Assembly's black caucus, say the Maryland Higher Education Commission violated a landmark U.S. Supreme Court civil rights ruling when it voted 10-1 to let majority-white Towson join the University of Baltimore in offering an MBA. The long-established MBA program at UB is not endangered.

"If you want to be in compliance with federal and state law, you should pass the bill," said Sen. Joan Carter Conway, a Baltimore Democrat and the legislation's lead sponsor. "It's about the law."

Opponents say the bill is a last-ditch attempt by Morgan President Earl S. Richardson to shield his school's faltering MBA program from competition. Critics say Morgan has neglected its program for years.

Under the proposed law, similar future disputes among Maryland's public universities would also be subject to judicial review, meaning that judges, not educators, could have the final say in which degree programs are allowed to begin.

That would be a "mind-boggling" mistake, said Sen. James Brochin, a Baltimore County Democrat who tried unsuccessfully to kill the bill in a heated Senate floor debate several weeks ago.

After the Senate passed the bill this month, Gov. Martin O'Malley indicated his support for it, spawning a frenzy of opposition lobbying by Towson and its governing body, the University System of Maryland. Morgan State is not part of the university system.

"I've never seen anybody lobby this hard," said Conway, who will present her case at a hearing before the House Appropriations Committee today.

Towson University President Robert L. Caret called Conway's bill "a dumb piece of legislation" that would encourage costly litigation and could weaken his fast-growing university's ability to respond to the changing educational needs of the regional work force.

"The problem with the way we're addressing the black-white issue is we're trying to force kids to go to certain campuses by holding programs hostage, and it doesn't work," Caret said.

Richardson said program duplication is a well-known tool of segregation that has been used to undermine historically disadvantaged black institutions.

The Supreme Court has generally discouraged such duplication, on grounds that it makes it easier for white students to stay away from black campuses.

Richardson said he hopes the prospect of lawsuits will encourage majority-white colleges to develop complementary, not competitive, programs with their historically black neighbors.

"It's going to deter future situations like this," Richardson said of the bill. "Institutions, knowing that they are subject to judicial review, won't even propose duplicate programs. They won't even go there."

In the 1992 case United States v. Fordice, the Supreme Court held that, barring "sound educational justification," duplication of specialized and graduate academic programs at historically black and white colleges violates the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. The court has placed the burden of desegregation on government, not on historically black institutions.

Maryland pledged to avoid such duplication in a five-year desegregation partnership with the U.S. Education Department's Office of Civil Rights. The agreement expired in December 2005.

Richardson has used civil rights arguments to block more than a dozen proposed programs at area colleges, notably an electrical engineering major at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

William E. Kirwan, chancellor of the 11-campus University System of Maryland, said that record proves that the state's higher education commission is abiding by its civil rights commitments.

"I think we have a process that is working very well," Kirwan said. "This bill is not only not necessary, I think it's bad public policy."

Richardson said he fears that his failure to kill Towson's MBA program is a dangerous precedent that could set back Maryland's desegregation efforts.

The Supreme Court did not prohibit the establishment of all duplicative programs, only those that are "unnecessary" or without "educational justification."

The court did not clarify what it meant by educational justification, and there is little subsequent case law to provide further guidance, said Albert Samuels, a political science professor at Southern University in Louisiana who studies desegregation in education.

In approving the Towson MBA program, the higher education commission cited as justification the educational needs of Towson's business college and the steady decline of Morgan's graduate business program over the years. Enrollment in Morgan's MBA program dropped from more than 250 students, many of them white, in the 1970s, to 28, none of them white, in 2005.

Among the arguments made in approving Towson's MBA program was that denying the school a graduate business program would harm its ability to recruit and retain faculty and administrators.

Towson is regarded as a leader in undergraduate business education in Maryland. Caret said Towson has lost business professors and administrators to schools with graduate divisions.

Calvin W. Burnett, a former Maryland higher education secretary who for years was president of historically black Coppin State University, concluded that Morgan had neglected its MBA program at a time of increased state funding. Morgan, he said in an interview this week, bears responsibility for the slide in its program's enrollment and reputation.

Richardson blames the decline on an influx of competing programs at private universities and on distance-learning competitors. But a 2005 review commissioned by Burnett found that the Morgan MBA program had inadequate staffing and marketing, and virtually no "visibility either on campus or off."

"There does not exist even an MBA sign on the door of the office identifying the program," the review team wrote in its December 2005 report.

Since then, the Morgan program has made significant improvements that school officials say could figure into the state's reconsideration of the need for a Towson MBA program if the legislation passes.

Otis A. Thomas, Morgan's business school dean, said MBA enrollment last fall was nearly 70, including a handful of white students. The program's new director, William Vroman, acknowledged administrative shortcomings in the past but said Morgan is gaining in the highly competitive MBA field and hopes to enroll about 150 students by 2012.

Morgan MBA students' morale is also on the rise, said graduate student David Turner, 34, who heads the program's recently formed student association.

"I think there's a lot of camaraderie and positive energy," he said. "The program is really gaining a lot of momentum."

Towson University's lobbyist in Annapolis, Jennifer L. Gajewski, said the recent resurgence of Morgan's program proves that both schools can happily offer an MBA.

"If their enrollment is up and our enrollment is up, then there are obviously enough students to go around," she said.

But Richardson says he has no intention of giving up his fight to shut down Towson's program.

The state's new higher education secretary, James E. Lyons Sr., said he fears that the MBA battle is too contentious for an out-of-court settlement.

"I certainly would not want [higher education commission] decisions subject to judicial review," said Lyons, a former president of historically black Bowie State University. "I think most people say that these kinds of decisions ought to be made in the academic arena. But in this particular scenario, I think it's beyond that, actually."

gadi.dechter@baltsun.com

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