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‘A new beginning’: 15-year journey to boost Maryland’s historically Black universities enters final stage

When David Burton decided to take on the state government over inequitable treatment of Maryland’s historically Black universities, he knew it wasn’t going to be easy or quick.

But he certainly didn’t anticipate it would take 15 years.

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“As with most civil rights legislation, I expected the state to prolong this as long as they could,” said Burton, president of Morgan State University’s class of 1967. “I can’t say I expected it to take this long.”

With action this week by state lawmakers, the 15-year saga involving three governors, thousands of pages of legal filings, countless hours in court and numerous failed mediation sessions is about to culminate in hundreds of millions of dollars in extra funding for Maryland’s historically Black universities.

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The General Assembly gave overwhelming approval to legislation that will require the state to spend $577 million in extra funding for Maryland’s historically Black universities over the course of a decade, including Morgan State University.
The General Assembly gave overwhelming approval to legislation that will require the state to spend $577 million in extra funding for Maryland’s historically Black universities over the course of a decade, including Morgan State University. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun)

The General Assembly gave overwhelming approval to legislation that will require the state to spend $577 million in extra funding for the universities over the course of a decade, enabling the long-running federal lawsuit to be settled. The aim is to begin a course correction after years of underfunding and government decisions left the schools at a disadvantage compared to predominantly white universities.

The bills will soon head to the desk of Gov. Larry Hogan for his consideration. He vetoed nearly identical bills last year, citing uncertain finances due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Asked about the bills this time around, a spokesman for the Republican governor would say only: “The governor will thoughtfully review any legislation that reaches his desk.”

Whether Hogan signs or vetoes the legislation matters little, logistically. The bills were approved by such wide margins that lawmakers can overturn any veto.

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House of Delegates Speaker Adrienne A. Jones, who sponsored the legislation and gave it the symbolic designation of House Bill 1, said the settlement of the lawsuit “is a matter of equity and is long overdue.”

“I look forward to the governor’s full support as we help our HBCUs get an equal opportunity to compete for the best and brightest students in Maryland and beyond,” Jones, a Baltimore County Democrat, said in a statement.

Mike Jones, an attorney representing Maryland's historically black colleges in a lawsuit, speaks during a 2019 rally in Annapolis.
Mike Jones, an attorney representing Maryland's historically black colleges in a lawsuit, speaks during a 2019 rally in Annapolis. (Brian Witte/AP)

The bills are the latest step in the lawsuit, which began in 2006 when Burton joined other alumni, students and supporters of Maryland’s four historically Black colleges and universities — referred to as HBCUs — to form the Coalition for Equity and Excellence in Maryland Higher Education and sue the state.

Maryland’s HBCUs are all state universities: Morgan State and Coppin State in Baltimore, Bowie State in Prince George’s County and the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore, in Somerset County. Each is more than 100 years old, founded at a time of legal segregation when most universities did not accept Black students. Eventually, they became part of the state’s public higher education system.

Supporters of the HBCUs say the universities have been unfairly treated for years, even after segregation ended and the concept of “separate but equal” was found to be unconstitutional. Multiple state commissions and reports throughout the 1900s documented the unfair treatment, but were not acted upon, according to a history compiled by HBCU advocates.

The coalition’s lawsuit alleged specifically that the state inappropriately duplicated unique academic programs from the HBCUs at historically white institutions, siphoning away students and actually resegregating the historically Black schools.

The program duplication was just one of many discriminatory decisions that left the HBCUs with insufficient resources to attract and retain students and high-quality professors, said Earl S. Richardson, president of Morgan State from 1984 through 2010.

Richardson, who had fought for more resources for Morgan for years, said the lawsuit was “a desperate action of last resort to force redress of Maryland’s neglect and harm to its four historically Black colleges.”

Richardson said Morgan State lacked equipment, dorms, financial aid and other resources necessary to run a high-quality university. The duplication of Morgan’s programs at other schools made it even worse, he said.

A key issue in the legal case was a master of business administration program that was set up as a joint venture of Towson University and the University of Baltimore, competing with Morgan’s business program. Decisions like that essentially kept entrenched a “segregated and duplicated system,” Richardson said.

In 2013, U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Blake agreed, ruling the state hadn’t done enough to help the HBCUs overcome segregation-era policies.

Blake wrote in her ruling that the state “offered no evidence that it has made any serious effort to address continuing historic duplication” of academic programs. And the state’s failure to prevent additional duplication was “even more troubling,” she wrote.

The judge urged the parties to go to mediation.

But by 2019, the case, now residing in a federal appeals court, still hadn’t been settled. Hogan — the third Maryland governor since the case started — made a settlement offer of $200 million, which he said was his final offer.

Burton, the Morgan alumnus, said Hogan’s offer was a “laughable nonstarter.”

“It was an insult at a level that would only compel us to intensify our efforts,” Burton said.

That’s when state lawmakers, already concerned about the HBCUs, ratcheted up their involvement. Prior bills to enshrine the judge’s order into law, to appoint a special master to oversee the case and to outright ban program duplication had failed over the years.

But momentum shifted, with the lawsuit coalition and lawmakers raising the profile of the issue. In the pandemic-shortened 2020 legislative session, the legislation to set aside money to fund a $577 million settlement passed with broad bipartisan support, only to fall to Hogan’s veto pen in May.

Democratic Sen. Charles Sydnor of Baltimore County, who sponsored the Senate version of the bill, said the $577 million figure is a bargain compared to estimates that, if the remedy was left to the courts, the state could have been ordered to spend $1 billion or more. He lamented that it took an act of the legislature to force the settlement.

“We didn’t need legislation,” he said. “[Hogan] could have done it. But it seemed like it wasn’t going to get done.”

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Former Sen. Joan Carter Conway, a Baltimore Democrat who fought for the HBCUs in the legislature for years before losing reelection in 2018, said even the $577 million isn’t enough.

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“Sometimes something is better than nothing,” she said.

Vernon Johnson, left, a sophomore at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, holds a sign at a rally in Annapolis with other students in 2019.
Vernon Johnson, left, a sophomore at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, holds a sign at a rally in Annapolis with other students in 2019. (Brian Witte/AP)

Following Hogan’s 2020 veto, lawmakers took up the issue in January when they returned to Annapolis. They put the final touches on the bills Thursday and sent them to the governor.

The legislation gives the state attorney general a directive to settle the lawsuit, which could happen in the next few months, according to Michael D. Jones, the lead attorney on the case.

“It’s essentially a done deal,” said Jones, a partner with the firm Kirkland & Ellis, who is working on the case on a pro bono basis.

Under the bill, starting in the 2023-2024 school year, each of the state’s HBCUs would divide up $57.7 million in additional funding annually. The payments would be based on student enrollment, with a minimum of $9 million per school.

The General Assembly gave overwhelming approval to legislation that will require the state to spend $577 million in extra funding for Maryland’s historically Black universities over the course of a decade. In the first year, the extra funding includes: $9 million for Coppin State.
The General Assembly gave overwhelming approval to legislation that will require the state to spend $577 million in extra funding for Maryland’s historically Black universities over the course of a decade. In the first year, the extra funding includes: $9 million for Coppin State. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun)

In the first year, the extra funding includes: $9 million for Coppin State; $9.7 million for the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore; $16.8 million for Bowie State, and $24 million for Morgan State.

The legislation dictates that the funding must be above and beyond what the universities would otherwise receive in the state budget. The money can be used for scholarships, financial aid, recruiting and developing faculty, expanding existing academic programs, adding academic programs, academic support and marketing.

The state university system would be required to work with the HBCUs to develop online academic programs and the state would have to study its process for approving new academic programs.

Jones, the attorney working on the case, said it’s gratifying that the universities will be able to move forward with expanded academic offerings.

It took plenty of work to get to this point, said Jones, who joined the case in 2009.

“It had so many moving pieces and it took so long. It has been the longest, most difficult case of my career,” he said.

The four universities now face the challenge of adding programs and attracting a diverse student body, while maintaining the culture and sense of inclusion that makes HBCUs so welcoming to Black students. The HBCUs also need to maintain their “unique mission” of providing opportunities for disadvantaged students, said Burton, the Morgan graduate.

“It will be a new beginning,” Burton said. “It’s a path that will change the trajectory of the state’s HBCUs, which can become a model for other states.”

Baltimore Sun librarian Paul McCardell contributed to this article.

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