A bill aimed at dismantling Towson University's new MBA program on civil rights grounds faces challenges in the House of Delegates, according to key lawmakers in the powerful Appropriations Committee.
Del. John L. Bohanan Jr., a St. Mary's County Democrat who heads the education subcommittee, said he had concerns about the legislation and predicted an amended version will come out of his panel.
Committee Chairman Norman H. Conway, an Eastern Shore Democrat, also expressed reservations and said he will support whatever amendments Bohanan shepherds through.
The legislation would force Maryland higher-education officials to reconsider their 2005 decision allowing Towson to offer a master's degree in business administration -- and would open the door for public colleges to sue each other over this and similar disputes.
The bill, which is backed by the General Assembly's black caucus, passed the Senate this month. Gov. Martin O'Malley then said he would support it, prompting an intense lobbying effort by opponents to kill or dilute the legislation in the House.
Supporters of the legislation believe Maryland's decision to let Towson offer an MBA degree violates the U.S. Constitution because the program duplicates an established one at nearby Morgan State University, a historically black institution.
The Supreme Court has generally discouraged such duplication, except when there is "educational justification," on the grounds that it makes it easier for white students to stay away from black campuses.
Under the bill, Morgan or Towson could appeal the state's final decision in court, a prospect higher education officials say is unprecedented nationally.
Opponents contend the Towson program is legal and in the state's best interests. The legislation, they say, is a gambit by Morgan State to shield its faltering MBA program from competition. Critics say Morgan has neglected its program for years.
Sen. Joan Carter Conway, the bill's lead sponsor, voiced frustration during yesterday's hearing when questioned by some skeptical delegates.
"This same bill flew out of the House last year," said Conway, a Baltimore Democrat. "I really shouldn't be here now."
A similar law overwhelmingly passed the General Assembly last year, but was vetoed by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican. Conway blamed aggressive lobbying by Towson and the University System of Maryland for the bill's mixed reception this session.
William E. Kirwan, chancellor of the state university system, supports an amendment that would impose binding arbitration -- not judicial review -- on the Morgan-Towson battle and similar future disputes.
Bohanan said yesterday that he is "leaning" toward proposing such an amendment, and will also contemplate changing retroactive provisions in the bill that explicitly target Towson's MBA, which started this fall with 30 students.
Appropriations Vice Chairman James E. Proctor Jr. said such changes would be devastating to the bill's backers. "I support the bill as it is," he said.
Bohanan said the bill could return to the full Appropriations Committee by the end of the week. If approved there, it would go to the full House.
Any differences in Senate and House versions would have to be reconciled between the two chambers before a bill could reach the governor's desk.