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Maryland HBCU settlement: historic, warranted and overdue | COMMENTARY

Speaker of the House Adrienne Jones addresses the crowd at a rally in support of court ordered funding of historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs, in Annapolis in November.
Speaker of the House Adrienne Jones addresses the crowd at a rally in support of court ordered funding of historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs, in Annapolis in November. (Joshua McKerrow / Capital Gazette)

Years of back and fourth legal sparring once made the idea of compensating the state’s historically black colleges and universities for past discrimination that undermined academic programs and hurt competitiveness seem like a long shot.

But decisive action by the Maryland General Assembly to give the schools $580 million over 10 years could finally bring to an end the 13-year lawsuit brought on behalf of a coalition made up of alumni from Morgan State University, Coppin State University, Bowie State University and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore (UMES). And it’s about time.

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Thank House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones, who should get tremendous credit for making it a key part of her legislative agenda and using her powerful voice to call for an end to the standoff between the Coalition for Equity and Excellence in Maryland Higher Education and the state. The House of Delegates voted 129-2 to move the bill forward, and The Senate passed the measure unanimously.

Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, who proposed a settlement almost three times less than that approved by legislators, and put no money in his budget to settle the case, still must sign the legislation into law. He should do so rather than have the state spend any more on expensive legal fees to fight a case in which the courts have said the state was in the wrong for past discrimination. Specifically, a 2013 decision found the state’s university system for years created an uneven playing field and encouraged segregation by allowing academic programs at traditionally white universities to undermine those at HBCUs, making it harder for the institutions to attract students and earn money.

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Mr. Hogan has not indicated what position he would take, but Mike Ricci, a spokesman for Mr. Hogan, has said the governor is open to considering a legislative solution to ending the lawsuit. We hope this means he has dropped the hard stance that the state would pony up no more than $200 million to settle the case — an amount that is woefully inadequate.

The settlement passed by state legislators is not perfect by any means. HBCUs in Mississippi were awarded about $500 million in 2002, or $791 million by today’s standards, to address discrimination and underfunding at three universities. The state falls short by those standards.

The Coalition for Equity and Excellence in Maryland Higher Education, which proposed a similar truce settlement last year, said they would like to see the $580 million more equitably distributed among the four universities. Right now, they said Coppin and UMES get too small of a share, which would make it harder for the schools to recover from past inequities. The group has also questioned the criteria for getting new money each year.

The distribution was based on current enrollment, rather than past discrimination, which the schools have argued has hurt enrollment at the institutions.

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The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which has said the case “can and should be settled,” must approve a final settlement between the state and coalition. The judge in the case should carefully consider whether the distribution of the money is in the best interest of all the schools, and whether the money should be reallocated. The settlement should help all of the institutions thrive and grow. We don’t want to see any of the HBCUs fail.

The money would be used to help the HBCUs to develop unique academic programs and to hire quality faculty members so that they can compete and attract students of all races. Funds would also go to more scholarships and financial aid to help with enrollment and marketing efforts to promote the schools and erase the stigma that they are inferior or less academically challenging.

HBCUs are an important part of the state’s higher education system, and they should be treated as such.They are anchors to neighborhoods and pipelines for teachers, nurses and engineers. These schools have educated generations of students, despite being deprived of resources, and the state has done these schools a disservice by keeping them wrapped up in litigation.

Hundreds of protesters flooded the State House grounds in November to implore Mr. Hogan not to shortchange the schools. If he won’t listen to the legislators, he should listen to them. Sign the legislation, Governor; it’s the right thing to do.

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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