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HBCU proposal to end lawsuit was a good faith move. Now what is Hogan going to do?

A recent Coppin State University graduation ceremony held at Baltimore's Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. The university is one of four historically black colleges and universities embroiled in a lawsuit with the state.
A recent Coppin State University graduation ceremony held at Baltimore's Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. The university is one of four historically black colleges and universities embroiled in a lawsuit with the state. (Baltimore Sun photo by Gene Sweeney Jr.)

A coalition representing Maryland’s four historically black colleges and universities has made a major move toward a sound and reasonable compromise to end years of wrangling in court and redress decades of severe under funding. In a letter to lawmakers, the group representing Morgan State University, Coppin State University, Bowie State University and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore has shown a good faith effort and willingness to concede on certain issues with its proposal for $577 million in compensation over “a reasonable time period" to settle a 13-year-old lawsuit, which otherwise has the potential for many more years of litigation.

Now it’s time for Gov. Larry Hogan and members of the General Assembly, some of whom received the proposal in a letter from the Coalition for Equity and Excellence in Maryland Higher Education, to show the same conviction and put an end to years of acrimonious litigation.

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The money the coalition suggests falls well below the $2 billion estimates the state has been accused of denying the schools and that people like former gubernatorial candidate Ben Jealous believes the institutions are owed. Take inflation into account, and it is also less than the $500 million settlement reached by Mississippi and its HBCUs in a similar case, which can be used as a good barometer for Maryland. By today’s standards, Mississippi would have paid $791 million.

In probably the most notable concessions from the HBCU side, the coalition has thrown up the surrender flag around the issue of duplication of programs, a huge sticking point in the negotiations. The lawsuit filed in 2006 centered around the state allowing white institutions to create academic programs that siphoned off students, and money, from the HBCUs. The HBCUs have long fought for removal of those programs, and one, the MBA program at Towson University, was eventually dismantled. But a broader shifting of programs would have been politically unfeasible and could have been damaging to the overall quality of higher education in the state if it meant the loss of good professors and students who were unwilling to make the move.

Instead, the HBCUs will focus on developing unique, in-demand academic programs and hiring faculty to run them, according to the letter to lawmakers from Michael D. Jones, the attorney representing the HBCUs. The schools would also use the money for scholarships and marketing to help overcome a stigma that the institutions are not as academically challenging as white institutions.

There seems to be some willingness from lawmakers in the General Assembly to restart serious discussions. That we are glad to hear. We certainly hope that Mr. Hogan will also come on board, but given his recent grousing about funding the Kirwan Commission plan to fix public schools, we are not so optimistic. The governor needs to do the right thing and come to the table. His past proposal of $100 million over 10 years was inadequate, amounting to just a couple of million dollars a year to each school. That’s just a drop of money and not representative of the resources the four institutions were denied for decades. Mr. Hogan likes to brag about his support for education; here’s his chance to demonstrate it while also showing concern for racial equity.

We should remind the governor that the state has a legal obligation to right the wrongs faced by the state’s HBCUs. A decision by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals made that clear by upholding a lower court ruling that sided with the schools and ordered that the state come up with a remedy for past segregation. The failure of the two sides to agree to a solution now means the case has gone back to the 4th Circuit

Wrapping the state up in litigation brings nothing good for anybody. The money and resources the state spends in court could be going to improving the HBCUs, and with each year the institutions are delayed in creating new programs and educating the next generation of students.

Legal questions aside, the state also has a moral obligation to bring this case to an end. For years, HBCUs have found a way to graduate thousands of students on inadequate resources while historically white institutions have flourished with the support of state funding. The HBCUs are part of the state’s higher education system just like other schools and should be treated accordingly.

It’s time this case is settled.

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