Federal court orders Maryland to settle 13-year legal battle with HBCUs
- A federal appeals court ordered the state of Maryland to settle a 13-year-old lawsuit with a coalition of alumni from its four HBCUs that claim the state has perpetuated segregation among its colleges.
- The plaintiffs in the case, the Coalition for Equity and Excellence in Maryland Higher Education, contend the state has allowed traditionally white colleges to duplicate unique programs offered at its HBCUs, undercutting the latter's ability to draw a diverse pool of students. As a result of this duplication, they argue, the HBCUs had only 11 unique programs in high-demand as of the lawsuit's filing, compared to 122 at the state's traditionally white institutions.
- The parties have until the end of April to reach an agreement. "[T]his case can and should be settled," the three-judge panel wrote in its decision. "Otherwise, the parties will likely condemn themselves to endless years of acrimonious, divisive and expensive litigation that will only work to the detriment of higher education in Maryland."
The case landed before the federal court after Maryland appealed a district court judge's decision to appoint an independent monitor to oversee the creation and funding of "unique" and "high demand" programs for the state's four HBCUs.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan proposed as much as $100 million for the new programs over the next decade, but the coalition's legal team contended it would take several times that amount to reconcile the history of inequality and move forward accordingly, The Baltimore Sun reported.
The coalition cited examples of declining enrollment in several of the HBCUs' unique programs after they were duplicated elsewhere, though the state argued the unique programs would not have had the intended effect of diversifying the colleges. Both parties, however, have indicated strong interest and even renewed optimism in resolving the protracted legal battle, according to The Washington Post.
Maryland's HBCUs are not alone in their battle for more funding, most of which comes from federal and state sources. In Florida and Tennessee, the use of performance-based funding has been called into question because it reduced allocations to flagship HBCUs.
And because most states have scaled back their financial support for higher education since the Great Recession, HBCUs in particular have been struggling amid declining undergraduate enrollment because they tend to have smaller endowments than their non-HBCU peers and lower levels of alumni giving. Other research has found the possibility of racial bias in lending to HBCUs, which has resulted in higher premiums on loans even for transactions with the best credit ratings, making them more difficult to pay off.
South Carolina's Denmark Technical College, for instance, grappled with possible closure in early 2018 after enrollment fell from more than 1,670 students in 2014 to 523 in 2017, Inside Higher Ed reported. Likewise, Knoxville College in eastern Tennessee closed in 2015 due to financial difficulties but got permission to reopen online last year with plans to restore on-campus classes in the future.
Both colleges narrowly avoided the fate of Saint Paul's College, in Virginia, and Concordia College Alabama, both of which closed as a result of budget crunches and enrollment declines. Other HBCUs' futures are uncertain. Bennett College, one of the last remaining women's HBCUs, must raise $5 million in the next few weeks in order to retain accreditation status that is at risk due to financial difficulties.
Alvin Schexnider, a former chancellor of the HBCU Winston-Salem State University, wrote in an op-ed for Inside Higher Ed that many HBCUs must adopt a new business model "that is intentional, innovative and committed to change," but that doing so "will probably require confronting an organizational culture rooted in obsolete business practices or identifying a niche or center of excellence that distinguishes it from the competition."
- U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit Court order
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