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Despite obstacles, Morgan State University soars

Sloane Brown reports from the Pre-Gala VIP Reception at Morgan State University's 30th Annual Gala, held October 17 at Martin's West.

As Morgan State University recently concluded the celebration of its historic 150th anniversary, it is appropriate to review some of the milestones in its development and acknowledge how a dual system of higher education in Maryland has adversely affected higher education in the state today.

Morgan, like many other HBCUs, was founded by well-intentioned churches and white leaders to provide for the education of freed slaves and other blacks who had been denied education prior to the Civil War. Founded in 1867 by the Baltimore Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church and originally named the Centenary Biblical Institute, the institution was private until 1939 when the state purchased it to create an institution for black Marylanders who were barred from attending the white schools in the state.

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As Morgan State University launched its sesquicentennial year in a special service Sunday, it was not lost on anyone there that Morgan's progress, like that of blacks in the U.S. in general, has come through concerted struggle. Even now its future is tied to the outcome of a federal lawsuit that seeks redress for vestiges of the Jim Crow era of state-sanctioned separate and unequal educational systems.

Prior to Morgan’s becoming a public campus, Maryland gave a limited number of small grants to blacks to attend college in northern states. When this approach, used mainly by southern states to provide “equal” higher education for blacks by sending them away, began to be met with skepticism by the courts, Maryland purchased Morgan, which has always been — and will always be — open to students of all races, as a defensive measure. The state continued to send blacks out of state for graduate and professional education, however, as Morgan State College, as it was then known, was strictly an undergraduate institution.

While it is obvious that relying on colleges outside of the state was simply a ploy by the state of Maryland to avoid educating blacks, a positive byproduct of that move was that many black students attended much better institutions than existed in Maryland at the time. Morgan was able to recruit many of those completing advanced degrees and wishing to return to Maryland, and in the process, it developed a well-qualified faculty that no institution in the state could match.

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The latest development in the decade-long lawsuit over discrimination against Maryland's HBCUs finally points the way toward a sensible, equitable resolution.

At the time, only Morgan and the University of Maryland College Park were accredited institutions among publicly supported campuses in the state. Other public campuses were teacher-training schools, and one was a two-year school. A special panel, the Marbury Commission, which looked at higher education quality in Maryland concluded that Morgan’s faculty was very impressive and compared favorably with the faculty at the University of Maryland, and with faculty at national prestigious universities, despite the obstacles faced by blacks in getting scholarly work funded and published. It found that Morgan led all public campuses in the percentage of its faculty teaching in the fields in which they had graduate degrees. The commission noted that Morgan was doing this despite a lack of state investment and recommended that state appropriations between Morgan and other campuses be equalized. This, however, did not occur.

Following Marbury, the state virtually ignored its HBCUs in its several planning studies until the early 1970s, when pressure from the federal government and the courts forced the state to begin to substantively desegregate its public campuses. But while the HBCUs enrolled significant numbers of white students, the predominantly white campuses enrolled few blacks. Morgan had a large and thriving graduate school, which had an enrollment that was half white. This was the case because its graduate programs were unique and not duplicated at nearby public campuses, which had not yet developed to Morgan’s level. Just prior to federal involvement in desegregating Maryland, Morgan had proposed that it become the state’s first multiracial university, a proposal that was rejected after a few years of indecision, on the pretense that Morgan was still a college and not yet a university. Acceptance of that recommendation could have resulted in an educationally sound desegregation process and avoided the excessive duplication in the Baltimore area that to the present has defied solution.

A federal judge rejected proposals by a civil rights group and Maryland officials to end segregation at the state’s public universities, appointing a special official to come up with a plan instead.

Today, Morgan has been designated as “Maryland’s Preeminent Public Urban Research University” and has a tremendous opportunity to be to the city of Baltimore what Georgia State is to Atlanta, or Portland State is to the city of Portland. Morgan is the only public comprehensive research university in Baltimore, and we aim to be the public university leader in producing research in urban sustainability, cyber security, public health, education reform, criminal justice and neighborhood and community revitalization. The campus is very attractive, and many students now take their classes and labs in state-of-the-art buildings. It has a well-credentialed and racially and ethnically diverse faculty, with significant international representation. Its faculty is perhaps the most diverse in the state and mirrors the demographics of the emerging student population. It has a growing research mission, and its faculty members are heavily involved in service to the local urban community.

Despite inadequate investments, Morgan has historically produced top ranked academic programs and graduates that lead the world. And it still does — and will for years to come.

David Wilson is President of Morgan State University. His email is: david.wilson@morgan.edu.

On Christmas 1866, African-American pastors founded a Bible school in the basement of a Baltimore church to educate newly freed slaves. On Sunday, current students joined members of Sharp Street Memorial United Methodist Church to celebrate the gathering that launched Morgan State University.

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