In a ruling that could help reshape the mission of Maryland’s historically black colleges and universities for years to come, a federal judge recently delivered some good news and bad news for both sides in the long-running controversy over how to end the vestiges of de jure segregation in the state’s public institutions of higher learning. It’s finally possible to envision a resolution to the decade-old lawsuit brought by HBCU alumni and supporters that remedies the legacy of more than a century of state-sanctioned discrimination against African-American college students and the schools they historically have attended without causing even greater damage to a university system that remains the key opportunity for advancement for Maryland’s students, black and white alike.
The most important provisions of U.S. Distrcit Court Judge Catherine C. Blake’s decision bar the state’s higher education commission from allowing the state’s traditionally white institutions to unnecessarily duplicate the historically black schools’ unique, high-demand academic programs — such as engineering and bioscience — created to boost diversity on their campuses. The lawsuit stemmed from the creation of a Towson University/University of Baltimore joint MBA program, but such practices go back decades. Although black students now make up some 12 percent of students at the state’s formerly all-white institutions of higher learning, the number of white students at the historically black colleges has plummeted in recent decades as more students choose to attend newly established high-demand programs that copy those offered by the HBCUs. A special master will enforce that provision and will oversee efforts to establish new, high-demand programs at the HBCU campuses designed to attract students of all races.
At the same time Judge Blake rejected the HBCUs’ call to close popular academic programs at the state’s so-called traditionally white schools and transfer them to the historically black colleges. That was always a non-starter because it would have set the stage for a political knife-fight among the institutions and their presidents that would have torn the system apart, and because it ignored the reality of differing missions and academic standards between the schools. Such forced moves would inevitably weaken the system’s strongest institutions more than they helped the HBCUs, at least in the short term, and that would have come at a price in terms of Maryland’s overall economic competitiveness.
Judge Blake handed neither side the unequivocal victory each sought. In addition to the wholesale transfer of unique high-demand programs from the state’s traditionally white schools, lawyers for the HBCUs had demanded their schools be compensated for up to $1 billion in damages suffered over decades as a result of chronic under-funding by state lawmakers during the era of legal segregation. Judge Blake rejected that argument, but she did recognize the state’s need to finance and market new programs at the HBCUs to allow them to fulfill their potential as training grounds for the highly skilled workforce Maryland will need in order to prosper in the 21st century. That’s the underlying issue that should never forgotten as Maryland moves to comply with Judge Blake’s order. This is not a matter of the prestige of individual schools or academic programs but how to create a system that ensures students have the best possible options available to them when planning their post-secondary careers.
If that prompts HBCUs in Maryland and elsewhere to re-evaluate their mission in light of changing economic requirements, circumstances and changing student enrollment patterns, that’s all to the good. We’ve never believed that strengthening the capacity of the state’s historically black schools was a zero sum game in which improvements there automatically came at the expense of the Maryland’s traditionally white colleges and universities. This case needs to be resolved in terms of equity and excellence for Maryland’s students, not in terms of what is or isn’t fair to the institutions, and Judge Blake’s decision moves us closer to that goal.