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Funding Maryland HBCUs must be a priority | READER COMMENTARY

Toran Smith, 19, a returning second-year student at Coppin State University, pushes a cart with his belongings toward his dorm, accompanied by his brother Cameron, left, and father, Sam Smith behind them. They drove to campus from Plainfield, New Jersey. Aug. 23, 2020. (Amy Davis/Baltimore Sun)
Toran Smith, 19, a returning second-year student at Coppin State University, pushes a cart with his belongings toward his dorm, accompanied by his brother Cameron, left, and father, Sam Smith behind them. They drove to campus from Plainfield, New Jersey. Aug. 23, 2020. (Amy Davis/Baltimore Sun) (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

As we begin the year 2021, one thing remains unchanged from 2020: Our nation and the state of Maryland, in particular, must address decades of disparate treatment imposed upon our citizens and institutions. Enacting Maryland House Bill 1/Senate Bill 1 (”Historically Black Colleges and Universities — Funding”) will send a clear signal to our nation and, indeed, the world that the state will no longer tolerate disparate and unequal treatment of its citizens and institutions (”Maryland speaker again seeks to force settlement of long-running HBCU lawsuit, after Gov. Hogan veto last year,” Jan. 19).

This bill seeks to remedy decades of unequal treatment of Maryland’s four HBCUs (Bowie State University, Coppin State University, Morgan State University and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore) relative to other state institutions of higher education. Consistent with this sentiment, Judge Catherine C. Blake of the Maryland U.S. District Court held that public “higher education opportunities for African Americans were either non-existent or decidedly inferior to the opportunities afforded to white citizens” in a lawsuit filed against the state of Maryland seeking redress for unconstitutional and unnecessary duplication of university programs for Maryland’s four HBCUs.

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To remedy this finding, Judge Blake ordered the state to provide funding for scholarships, marketing, financial aid and expanded academic programs. Although the Maryland General Assembly heeded Judge Blake’s order and passed an HBCU equity bill in 2020, Gov. Larry Hogan vetoed the legislation. Fortunately, thanks to the leadership of House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones, Senate President Bill Ferguson, Sens. Charles Sydnor III and Antonio Hayes, among others, the state has an opportunity to prove that equity and HBCUs do matter. It should not go unnoticed that this was the first piece of legislation offered as the 2021 General Assembly session convenes which seeks to make Maryland’s HBCUs whole. For this, Speaker Jones and President Ferguson certainly ought to be commended.

As both the assistant vice president of government relations for a national non-profit organization that represents publicly-supported HBCUs, including each of Maryland’s HBCUs, and a native Marylander, I take great pride in representing not only Maryland’s HBCUs, but our entire nation’s public HBCUs, which have historically produced top teachers, entrepreneurs and leaders. That includes, most notably, Vice President Kamala Harris, U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock and my dear friends and mentors, Rep. Kweisi Mfume and the late Rep. Elijah Cummings. According to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, among African Americans, 40% of members of Congress, 40% of engineers, 50% of lawyers and 80% of judges are HBCU graduates.

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The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic provides further evidence of the value of Maryland’s HBCUs, particularly in their efforts to combat the global pandemic. For instance, Maryland’s HBCUs house critical public health-related programs ranging from nursing to pharmacy. There remains a significant need for African American health professionals given decades of mistreatment of African Americans by majority medical professionals and institutions. Indeed, for that reason, many African Americans are hesitant or reluctant to receive a COVID-19 vaccination. Therefore, Maryland’s HBCUs will play a critical role in establishing trust, encouragement, and education to get more people in our communities vaccinated.

For the reasons expressed above, enacting HB1/SB1 offers the best first step toward remedying years of inequitable funding practices sustained by Maryland’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

Sean D. Burns, Baltimore

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