Decade-long legal battle to scrub segregation from Maryland universities returns to federal court

A decade-long legal battle to scrub segregation from Maryland universities returns to federal court Monday.

A decadelong lawsuit to scrub traces of segregation from Maryland's university system returns to federal court in Baltimore Monday with both sides firmly entrenched in their positions after years of unsuccessful mediation.

The lawsuit filed in 2006 argued that academic programs at well-funded, traditionally white public universities eroded similar programs at historically black colleges. The complaint called for some of those programs to be stripped from the predominantly white institutions and transferred to the black institutions.

The Maryland Higher Education Commission has balked at the demands, arguing in court filings that removal of key academic programs would harm students of all races at the state's largest universities.

Court-ordered mediation failed in 2011 and 2014. Now U.S. District Judge Catherine Blake has ordered both sides to return to court to decide remedies.

"It's going to be very hard for Judge Blake to fashion a remedy that makes sense," said Laslo Boyd, an acting secretary of higher education under former Gov. William Donald Schaefer. "They can't even see each other from where they're talking."

The attorneys behind the lawsuit have compared their case to the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case in 1954 that struck down segregation in public schools

Judge Blake acknowledged in an order for mediation the "shameful history" of segregation within the state university system. She wrote that the state failed to stop traditionally white institutions from offering the same academic programs as historically black universities and thereby encouraged segregation.

The challenge for both sides is how to remedy that history.

Attorneys with the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which is behind the lawsuit, wants new, attractive programs started at Maryland's four historically black universities: Morgan State, Bowie State, Coppin State, and the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore.

These attorneys are also demanding certain academic programs be stripped or transferred from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County; Towson University, the University of Baltimore and University of Maryland University College.

"If you have a program at Morgan, there is really no reason to have the exact same program at UMBC or Towson," said Michael Jones of Kirkland & Ellis LLP, a lead attorney for the lawyers' committee. "After all, it's one system. It's wasteful and it's contrary to best practices in higher ed. It's a continuation of this whole notion that somehow the historically black schools aren't good enough for non-black students."

Jones and his team have proposed about 100 programs to be transferred to or started at the historically black colleges. They want a program in homeland security to be transferred from Towson to Coppin. Some 31 Towson students were enrolled in the program last fall, according to the university.

These students would be allowed to finish, Jones said, and faculty would be encouraged to follow the program to the new campus.

Also, the attorneys want a computer engineering program moved from UMBC to Morgan State. About 200 undergraduate and graduate students are currently enrolled in UMBC's program, according to the university.

"We're not looking to harm the white schools. We're looking to correct a constitution violation," Jones said. "UMBC has a program they never should have had."

In the early 1980s, the Maryland Higher Education Commission recommended engineering be established at Morgan, said Earl Richardson, former president of Morgan. But the commission changed course and sent some engineering programs to the UMBC campus, undermining engineering education at Morgan, Richardson said.

Richardson was among a coalition of faculty, alumni and advocates to bring the lawsuit a decade ago.

"We had been so concerned about all the harm and damage that had been done to the university," he said, "we were trying to find a way to at least stop the bleeding."

Desegregation of the state's public colleges did not begin in earnest until the early 1970s, and by 1976, the historically black colleges had a white undergraduate enrollment of about 18 percent. But in 2009, the percentage of white students had fallen to an average of 5 percent. The state struck an agreement with the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights in 2000 in which it pledged to add unique and popular programs at historically black universities.

The lawsuit was filed after the Maryland Higher Education Commission approved in 2005 a joint MBA program between Towson and the University of Baltimore. The program allowed the mostly working students to take classes at both campuses and online. Morgan officials had argued that the program would draw students — white students, in particular — from its own MBA program, which had seen its white student population plummet since UB began offering MBA degrees in the 1970s.

Towson and UB have since allowed their joint MBA program to expire. State officials said in court filings that the program's end means a focus of the lawsuit "is no longer an issue."

They said their remediation plan would spend $26 million to address what they acknowledge is a historically segregated system, according to court records. But they also said they want to ensure Maryland's higher education system as a whole remains unharmed.

"There is a lack of sound qualitative or quantitative evidence to support far-reaching court-ordered remedies," attorneys for the state wrote. "Such remedies have the potential to cause harm and divert scarce state financial and academic resources away from the education of students of all races."

The trial beginning Monday is expected to draw into court presidents from Bowie, Coppin, Morgan, the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, Towson, UMBC, the University of Baltimore and others, according to expert lists submitted to the court.

UMBC President Freeman Hrabowski declined through a spokeswoman to specifically discuss the lawsuit, citing the ongoing case.

"Maryland has a critical need for more highly-trained graduates to power our STEM workforce, and we need more of our institutions — not fewer — to be producing significant numbers of graduates in fields such as IT and engineering," said Candace Dodson-Reed, the spokeswoman.

Hrabowski previously argued in court records that the loss of any program would discourage enrollment and threaten revenue.

UB President Kurt Schmoke and Hrabowski said in court documents that the drastic changes the coalition is requesting would set back the state's higher-education system. Hrabowski, Schmoke and others also argue that losing popular programs would cost institutions millions in revenue and confuse and upset students and prospective applicants.

Maryland Higher Education Commission spokeswoman Maria Torres also declined to comment. But state officials have said that transferring programs amounted to "robbing Peter to pay Paul."

"The notion that you can wall off a program and try and create a monopoly for a single institution is out of touch with the way higher education operates," said Boyd, the former acting secretary of education.

Those involved have said any resolution appears far off. Jones contended that state officials have been unwilling to budge.

"They poured the concrete, and they're not going to voluntarily break it up," he said.

Boyd expects the case to continue for months, maybe years, before it's settled, he said.

"Whoever doesn't prevail is going to appeal," he said.

tprudente@baltsun.com

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