HBCU lawsuit: A troubled legacy

Has Maryland reneged on its promise to desegregate the state's public institutions of higher learning? Has the state, in defiance of the law, continued to operate a dual system of separate and unequal schools based on race?

The answer to such questions will decide the outcome of a potentially historic case that opened last week pitting the state's four historically black colleges and universities against the Maryland Higher Education Commission. At issue is whether the state has truly succeeded in overcoming the shameful legacy of its segregated past, or whether it has simply extended the policies and practices of that era into the present under a different guise.


It may seem strange that such a question is being asked at all in the second decade of the 21st century. After all, some 60 percent of the state's approximately 50,000 African-American college students now attend state public colleges and universities from which they once would have been barred because of their color.

Meanwhile, the state's historically black colleges and universities — Morgan State University, Coppin State University, Bowie State University and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore — have all received significant increases in state funding that in some cases exceed those granted to Maryland's traditionally white institutions of higher learning.


In addition, the state has worked to support the development of new academic programs, mission statements and capital improvement projects at its HBCUs, with the goal of putting them on a par with the other Maryland public colleges and universities in a way that makes them comparable to and competitive with their peers across the country.

There's no question Maryland has made tremendous progress in recent decades toward rectifying the injustices of the era when racially segregated schools were the law of the land and the state operated a dual system of colleges and universities for the express purpose of keeping the races apart.

But as important as these changes have been, plaintiffs argue, they have not gone nearly far enough. Though the state may no longer openly lavish funds on schools that predominantly serve white students while starving those mainly attended by blacks, it has yet to eliminate all vestiges of the policies and practices of the era of de jure segregation.

Moreover, simply comparing current funding levels for the HBCUs and the rest of the University System of Maryland is misleading, they claim, because it ignores the cumulative deficits built up over more than half a century when the HBCUs were deliberately underfunded in order to deny equal educational opportunity to blacks. The practices and policies of that era produced a huge backlog of needs that the relatively recent increases in state funding don't begin to cover.

In order to make the HBCUs whole, the plaintiffs argue, the state must first level the playing field by giving the schools the resources needed to regain the ground they lost during the era of segregation. It's not enough to simply equalize current funding levels because that will never be enough to enable the schools to catch up and be competitive with their traditionally white counterparts. Plaintiffs estimate it could cost Maryland as much as $1 billion in additional funding to make the four schools whole.

Attorneys for the state higher education commission counter that the HBCUs are already being funded as well or better than Maryland's traditionally white institutions, and that in any case the 1992 Supreme Court precedent on which the case is based, U.S. v. Fordice, requires only that states eliminate the policies and practices originating in the era of segregation, which Maryland has done. It does not require states to compensate the historically black colleges and universities victimized by those policies for the damage they suffered.

This case, which is expected to last several weeks, will surely be watched closely by other public university systems around the country as well as by the historically black colleges and universities that are working to redefine their mission in the post-civil rights era. For many of them, integration has been a bittersweet experience: On the one hand, they saw the long-standing goal of a colorblind society achieved when segregated state university systems finally opened their doors to blacks. On the other hand, those same states did little to enhance the historically black schools to make them competitive with their traditionally white peers. Much as on the elementary and secondary school level, where black schools were closed in favor of shifting resources to formerly all-white ones, integration for the colleges was effectively a one-way endeavor.

Maryland's historically black colleges and universities, which have contributed so much to the state's educational and historical legacy, deserve better. But fairness to the institutions is somewhat beside the point; it is vital to the state's interests that these schools are as effective at educating students and producing research as Maryland's other public colleges and universities. In today's global economy, we can't afford anything less. Whatever comes of this lawsuit, it should force the state to reckon with the fact that its HBCUs are, in many respects, still not fully comparable and competitive with their peer institutions. Unless it finds a way to change that, neither they nor the state will ever achieve their full potential.