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Dueling visions of Maryland's HBCUs

More than two years ago state education officials were given an assignment: Come up with a plan to address Maryland's checkered history of race-based inequality in higher education. They then did something familiar to many college students: They procrastinated. As a result, when the absolute deadline neared, they threw together something that they hoped would pass muster with the teacher and at least earn a grade higher than an F.

The state turned in a last minute, 10-page "Defendants' Report and Remedial Proposals" on Nov. 20 — apparently thrown together after their lawyers realized that time was running out and that U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Blake would permit no more extensions. Now she must decide what to do with the state's document in a case that has been kicking around for about 10 years in lawyers' billable hours, but really has it roots in the Jim Crow era, which began in the 19th century.

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Why drag up history? Well, like a famous son of the South, William Faulkner wrote and as Judge Blake has inferred, "The past is never dead. It's not even past."

Prior to 1920, there were no public higher education institutions for blacks in a state whose flagship university had its beginnings in the 1850s. By 1937, the first of many state commissions concluded: "It is thus clear that the white population has had the advantage of generous state support for its higher education many years in advance of the Negro population. The contrast between the amounts of money received by the two racial groups would show, if possible of computation, an enormous differential in favor of the white race."

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What remains of that "enormous differential" in money and in academic programs will hardly be rectified by the $10 million the state now proposes spending over six years to match HBCUs with predominantly-white institutions in new program collaborations — or the $500,000 or so per year for four years that it would give each HBCU to conduct summer-school programs for the brightest high school students. The thinking is that if they are exposed to academic programs at HBCUs in "state-of-the-art facilities" that are supposed to magically emerge, more of these students — especially whites — will enroll in them.

These proposals hardly address what Judge Blake has referred to as Maryland's "shameful history of de jure segregation throughout much of the past century."

Over the years, says Earl Richardson, the former president of Morgan who is an adviser to the plaintiffs in the case, state leaders "designed the [predominantly-white institutions] to grow and develop and the black ones to wither on the vine."

After years of litigation, including a six-week trial in 2012 and nearly two years of mediation, the state is still challenging the basis for the lawsuit and insisting that to muck around with the current system is to risk messing up a good thing, reducing educational opportunities rather than increasing them. Even now lawyers for the state are hankering to escape the judge's grip so they might try to convince a higher court that there is no problem requiring court intervention.

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The strategy seems to be one of forestalling radical reconstruction, maintaining the status quo and then crying for mercy from a judge and political allies because the system has worked so well this way for so long that to change any part of it would ruin the whole.

Merging schools and transferring programs would disrupt education at the University of Maryland College Park, University of Maryland Baltimore County, Towson and the University of Baltimore. That is what both Kurt Schmoke, president of UB, and Freeman Hrabowski, president of UMBC, said in affidavits they submitted in favor of the status quo. Mr. Hrabowski wants to preserve the "tight integration and synergy" of his engineering and computer programs. Mr. Schmoke does not want to lose UB's master of business administration program to Morgan because it is the cash cow that keeps 27,000 business alumni generously giving to UB each year.

The HBCUs want remedies that are transformative, including the transfer of popular programs to them that they say should rightfully have been theirs from the start. The state wants to avoid "far-reaching, risky schemes." The HBCUs are looking back to the origins of the dual educational system — or at least to 2000 when the state promised the U.S. Justice Department that it would fix things. The state wants to focus on the present and its good intentions. The HBCUs have visions of multiracial 21st century models of higher education with what's called "unique, high demand programs." They suspect that the state's tinker-at-the-margins approach would relegate them to second-tier status, heavily focused on remedial education for the state's most underprivileged students. Michael Jones, a lawyer for the coalition of former and current students who initiated the lawsuit, says the state sees the role of HBCUs as "offering lesser academic programs for African Americans."

What we have here are dueling visions of how to eradicate vestiges of a dual system.

Over the next few weeks we should learn more, as the lawyers bombard Judge Blake with more papers. She will have to be wiser than Solomon to resolve this impasse.

E.R. Shipp, a Pulitzer Prize winner for commentary, is the journalist in residence at Morgan State University's School of Global Journalism and Communication. Her column runs every other Wednesday. Email: er.shipp@aol.com.

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