Maryland returns to national spotlight in federal higher ed discrimination lawsuit

Judge to rule on remedies for generations of 'separate but equal' dual system of public higher education in the state

A federal court will begin remediation hearings between a coalition of students and graduates of Maryland’s four historically black colleges and universities next week, drawing closer to a potential landmark decision with racial and economic undertones connected to other civil rights higher education decisions tracing back more than 50 years.

Attorneys for the State of Maryland and the Coalition for Equity and Excellence in Maryland Higher Education will meet in formal hearings for the first time since Judge Catherine Blake ruled in August 2013 that the state had long maintained a separate but unequal system of higher education which divided white and minority students primarily through unnecessary duplication of academic programs at the HBCUs.

How did we get here

During the six-week trial, representatives for the Coalition argued that the state had willfully ignored decades of state-commissioned studies recommending enhancement of the schools through the development of unique and niche programs in competitive fields, along with improving the capital outlay of Bowie State University, Coppin State University, Morgan State University and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore.

"Maryland’s HBIs offer only 11 non-duplicated, high-demand, noncore programs, compared with 122 such programs at TWIs, for an average of 17 per TWI and only 3 per HBI," Judge Blake wrote in her ruling. "Unique, high-demand programs are a key reason white students attend HBIs in other states, and, without them, HBIs 'are identified by their racial history as opposed to [their] programs.'"

The state argued that adequate efforts had been made to desegregate higher education, citing the increase of minority students attending predominantly white institutions, and certain grants and pilot programs introduced at black colleges between 1988 and 2005. Attorneys said that program transfer or institutional merger would prove too costly for the state, with some estimates in the range of $2 billion for new programs to be established with complementary facilities, technology and facilities allocations.

“Is the aspiration of diversity about students or institutions? Are you trying to create opportunities of advancement for minorities, or are you trying to strengthen HBCUs regardless of the effect?” former higher education legislative consultant Laslo Boyd said in a 2015 interview with Inside Higher Ed.

These claims were made despite plaintiffs’ assertion that hundreds of millions have been annually spent in the establishment of new colleges and universities, program creation, and personnel and operating costs to sustain the state’s discriminatory system.

“One thing that the judge noted in particular, if you look at Maryland today compared to Mississippi of decades ago when they had similar litigation, that Maryland was, in fact, worse than Mississippi in terms of the dual system of academic programs,” said Michael Jones, coalition co-lead counsel and partner with Kirkland & Ellis LLP in Washington D.C.

Some officials view the Maryland case as the latest iteration of an ongoing fight for black colleges seeking equity. Litigation in Tennessee, Mississippi and Alabama have proven recurring discrimination in higher education throughout the country, with program duplication at the center of nearly all cases and resulting outcomes.

In 2014, alumni in Pennsylvania filed a lawsuit against state and federal higher education officials claiming discrimination against Cheyney University, which they said has suffered from a lack of comparability with larger state-supported institutions.

“...it has not come close to providing Cheyney University with the money, the facilities, the unique high-demand, non-duplicated programs, and the other resources that it owes and that equity demands,” said Michael Coard, a Cheyney graduate and attorney representing Heeding Cheyney’s Call, the organization bringing litigation against the state for inequitable treatment of the nation’s oldest HBCU.

In 2015, graduates and students from South Carolina State University filed a similar lawsuit against the state, claiming that legislative neglect led to call from lawmakers to close the school in the wake of leadership controversies, falling enrollment, and budget crises.

Maryland continues segregative efforts?

In 2012, the University of Maryland - College Park and the University of Maryland - Baltimore inked a strategic partnership which strengthened research and programmatic development between the two institutions separate by less than 40 miles. Last April, the partnership increased under a plan approved by state legislators, which initially called for a merger of the two institutions, but was revamped after opposition from neighboring system institution, the University of Maryland - Baltimore County.

UMBC and Towson University received $2 million from the new legislative effort, while the UMD-UMB collaboration netted $13 million for the two schools to create new centers for entrepreneurial and research development.

Attorneys for the coalition called the move, which did not clear new funding for any of the state’s four HBCUs, a continuing sign of disengagement from meeting constitutional mandates.

“Over the next several years, the state has pledged tens of millions of dollars towards these two schools working together,” said Coalition co-counsel Jon Greenbaum. “And then in addition to that, the same legislation increased the base level of funding for two other traditionally white institutions. And in our view, this reflects that for the state’s capacity in things it chooses to prioritize, it has the capacity to put tens of millions of dollars into it. But when it comes to the HBIs, it pleads poverty.

“It also shows the respect it puts towards certain institutions like TWIs, but where it has pledged to deal with inferiority, it hasn’t made the institutional decision to provide that type of support.”

Since the 2013 decision, Georgia became just the second state in history to consolidate a predominantly white institution, Darton State College, with predominantly black Albany State University to create what officials called a new institution under the Albany State name, with a mission which “respects and builds on the historical roots of its institutional predecessors with its commitment to access and a strong liberal arts heritage that respects diversity in all its forms and gives all students the foundation they need to succeed.”

Morgan State University President Emeritus Earl S. Richardson called the Maryland case an effort to ensure that Maryland becomes a standard bearer of what inclusive public higher education can be, and can do for the nation.

“I think that everything we’ve heard, all of the recommendations that have been set forth by the various blue-ribbon task forces, and the niches that were intended to create these viable institutions, and the state made many commitments to develop those institutions into those viable centers of excellence, but never did. And so that’s what we’re striving for here, so that the state of Maryland becomes the leader in terms of, at last achieving what we think is an integrated and complementary system of higher education that represents all of the people and all of the regions of the state.”

Filed Under: Higher Ed Legal / Courts