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Federal judge approves $577 million settlement for Maryland’s historically Black universities

A federal judge approved a deal Wednesday for Maryland to settle a long-running lawsuit over the state’s treatment of its four historically Black universities with $555 million in extra funding over 10 years, clearing the last major hurdle to end a legal battle launched in 2006.

The lawsuit, filed by alumni and supporters of the schools, argued the state systematically undermined the institutions even after the end of legal segregation and made it difficult for Bowie State University, Coppin State University and Morgan State University in Baltimore, and the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore, to compete with the state’s other public universities for students and resources.

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U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Blake issued an order Wednesday that the proposed settlement adequately addressed failings she identified after a trial in 2013 in the civil case. At that time, Blake ruled that Maryland had harmed the HBCUs by allowing nearby historically white universities to add similar degree programs.

The Maryland General Assembly set the stage earlier this year to end the 15-year-old lawsuit by overwhelmingly passing legislation to force the state to settle and fund the deal. Gov. Larry Hogan signed the legislation this spring.

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The Republican governor had vetoed a nearly identical bill in 2020 and described a $200 million settlement proposal in 2019 as his “final offer.” The Legislative Black Caucus of Maryland championed the settlement effort over several years and House of Delegates Speaker Adrienne A. Jones, a Baltimore County Democrat, declared it a priority for the 2021 legislative session.

The state will pay the extra $555 million to the four universities over the course of 10 years beginning in 2023. The extra money will go toward creating new academic programs and enhancing existing ones, bolstering online offerings, boosting financial aid, marketing the schools and recruiting and training faculty.

The settlement will also cover $22 million in legal costs for the plaintiffs, bringing the total amount to $577 million.

David Burton, a 1967 Morgan State University graduate and lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, called the end of the litigation “a significant step forward in the fight for equity and parity in Maryland higher education.”

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Michael Jones, an attorney for Kirkland & Ellis who served pro bono as co-counsel for the plaintiffs alongside the nonprofit Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said only a handful of administrative steps — including formally withdrawing still-pending appeals — remain.

Jones credited the court victories, and the General Assembly’s move to require a favorable settlement, to intense lobbying and proud displays of support from students and alumni.

Former Morgan State President Earl Richardson said in a news release issued by the plaintiffs that the extra funding “will go a long way in helping these universities overcome decades of neglect and increase their competitiveness among other public colleges and universities.”

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