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Maryland's HBCU impasse

Can the Maryland HBCU case be settled in a way that helps rather than hurts the state's higher education syste

Years of litigation and mediation appear to have killed off the joint Towson-University of Baltimore MBA program that helped spark a lawsuit by supporters of Maryland's four historically black colleges and universities — but not to have brought the two sides any closer together. If the HBCU advocates are "not the slightest bit impressed" with a $10 million plan to increase ties between those schools and the state's traditionally white institutions, as an attorney for the plaintiffs put it, the HBCUs' plan — a Morgan State University takeover of UB and the wholesale transfer of plum academic programs from the TWIs — isn't workable either.

Lost in legal firestorm of Maryland's legacy of segregation and historic disinvestment in the HBCUs is an appreciation of what would really represent a positive outcome for the students whose interests should really be at the heart of the matter. Maryland has a limited amount of resources to allocate to higher education, and the question should be how to deploy those funds to produce the best educated workforce possible for the 21st century. The glory and prestige of any particular institution — whether an HBCU or a TWI — is not the issue U.S. District Judge Catherine Blake should be focused on. What should be at the heart of the matter is ensuring the state provides the right array of options to further the academic and professional interests of as many students as possible, regardless of their race. We can ill afford either to maintain a set of institutions that are underperforming their potential or to eviscerate some of the most highly successful programs in Maryland higher education, but the former is what's happening now and the latter is what would happen if the HBCU advocates get their way.

We doubt that $10 million spread among four schools over five years will satisfy the court or substantially increase diversity on the HBCUs' campuses. Considering the state is spending $44 million over a decade to not merge the University of Maryland College Park and the University of Maryland Baltimore (or, for that matter, $31 million to get UM out of the Atlantic Coast Conference), the offer seems decidedly unimpressive. A handful of "collaborative academic programs" and summer programs for high school students on the HBCU campuses won't be enough to recruit white students if the HBCUs still lack unique, attractive academic programs.

But at the same time, simply taking some of UMBC's engineering or computer science programs, for example, and plunking them down at Morgan wouldn't do the trick either. The cachet of such programs isn't just the subject matter or even the faculty, it is the culture and ecosystem of the institution of which it is a part. A school student with the academic qualifications to get into one of those programs at would either still go to UMBC and study something else or attend some other institution, perhaps out of state, rather than attend Morgan. And that's just as true for top black students as top white ones.

Meanwhile, a Morgan-UB takeover would increase Morgan's diversity numbers — but only because enrollment there is so lopsided now. UB is a majority-minority campus, with white students making up about 40 percent of enrollment at last count. But given that Morgan is 96.7 percent non-white, grafting UB onto the HBCU would increase its white enrollment figures tenfold. However, it is unclear how two institutions with such different missions could be meaningfully and profitably combined. Morgan was the flagship public institution for Maryland's blacks during segregation, and it has maintained its identity as a traditional, comprehensive research university. UB by contrast has primarily served transfer students (a recent experiment with admitting freshmen notwithstanding) and graduate students in its professional schools. Is that what Morgan should be?

We think Morgan President David Wilson — who is not a party to the lawsuit — is on the right track with his vision of Morgan as an urban research university. That's a distinct role that is not presently filled, at least not in a comprehensive way, by Maryland's other public universities, and it's one that has a great deal of promise. The culture of innovation Mr. Wilson has sought to foster, coupled with the wave of social consciousness among young people unleashed in the wake of Freddie Gray's death, could make Morgan tremendously attractive to students of all races. It will take more than the $10 million initiative the TWIs are talking about to achieve, and carving out a similarly distinctive role for a more troubled institution like Coppin State University may be more difficult. But it offers a blueprint for how to erase the legacy of segregation by adding to Maryland's higher education offerings rather than diminishing them. We hope that's the sort of solution Judge Catherine Blake will demand.

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