Desegregating Maryland’s HBCUs: An Update and Critique

LaToya Russell Owens, SEF Higher Education Doctoral Intern || June, 2015

Historically, various Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) in numerous states including Mississippi, Louisiana, and Tennessee among others, have filed suit with those states claiming that program duplication and underfunding hindered their ability to desegregate, and thus, sustain their universities.  Recently, the Coalition for Equity and Excellence in Maryland Higher Education issued a proposal that among other remedies, called for the merger of the University of Baltimore into Morgan State University, and the repositioning of the University of Maryland - University College as a statewide platform for online degree offerings from the HBCUs and other public institutions.  This proposal is the result of ongoing mediation, stemming from a lawsuit filed by the Coalition for Equity and Excellence in Maryland Higher Education against the Maryland Higher Education Commission.  As we watch this case unfold, and await the results of mediation that were due on May 30th, we are reminded of the critical nature of this case for the survival of not only HBCUs in Maryland, but throughout the country.

On October 7, 2013 a U.S. District Court judge, Catherine C. Blake, ruled that the State of Maryland and the Maryland Higher Education Commission failed to desegregate the State’s system of higher education as required by Title VI of the Civil Rights Act and the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution.  Maryland’s desegregation ruling held promise for the four HBCUs in Maryland as well as HBCUs across the nation, for two reasons:

1. It indicated that to comply with the ruling many additional academic programs would have to be added to the HBCUs current offerings and; 2. Non-duplication of high-demand programs, and an increase in high-demand programs, could increase enrollment and thus funding for HBCUs.

With many HBCUs facing financial pressures because of changes in federal and state policies, decisions affecting funding are particularly crucial, especially for institutions with a small student population and limited resources.  For those institutions, this decision could mean the survival of their organization and consequently the education of thousands of Black students.  As we see things play out in the case of South Carolina State University, we are further pushed to question inequitable state funding practices and program duplication.  Some argue that historical underfunding by the state and program duplication by nearby schools, including the University of South Carolina, helped cause the University’s enrollment to plummet and left it in financial crisis, which the state is using as a platform to close the school.  Thus, this ruling holds the possibility of avoiding similar fates at the four HBCUs in Maryland.

Maryland HBCUs are small in comparison to non-HBCUs, thus making them particularly vulnerable to issues of student recruitment and retention as well as state funding.  Of the four HBCUs in Maryland, Bowie State University has a population of 5,578, Coppin State University has a population of 3,800, Morgan State University has a population of 8,018, and University of Maryland Eastern Shore has a population of 4,540, full and part-time students.  All four HBCUs’ student populations are more than 50 percent Pell Grant eligible.  Comparatively, Maryland’s public Predominantly White Institutions (PWIs) have an average undergraduate student population of more than 10,000 and a Pell Grant population of approximately 30 percent.

However, because the October 7th ruling did not directly require the state to reassign funds, citing Judge Blake’s decision that there was no evidence that the state's funding system is inherently discriminatory, for these universities to see real change the mediation will have to focus on the reallocation of programs in accordance with the duplication of programs.  This means new programs will have to be created at HBCUs or programs may have to be moved from PWIs to HBCUs.  Judge Blake specifically spoke to these issues in her recommendations for remediation pointing out that it is likely there will be a need to transfer or merge select high-demand programs from traditionally white universities to HBCUs to remedy the constitutional violations.

Mediation ordered and agreed upon by all parties focused on solving the problem of program duplication cited in the judges’ ruling, and a report on mediation was due to Judge Blake by May 30, 2015.  If mediation is unsuccessful then the case could go into further proceedings.

Almost one month past the mediation due date, we recognize that perhaps 20 months is too quick to look for substantial results from a ruling that was the result of decades of legal action and based on the application of a ruling from a prior case lasting more than a quarter century, United States v. Fordice, 1992.  In that Mississippi case, though the lawsuit was filed in 1975, and a decision reached in 1992, it was not until 2001 that the Mississippi desegregation case was settled, with the State of Mississippi required to increase funding to the state’s three public four-year HBCUs by $500 million.  Considering this precedent, it will not be surprising if mediation results in further proceedings on the case, especially considering the vocal push back of the state’s representatives including former Governor of Maryland, Martin O'Malley, a Democrat, who released a statement commenting that he respectfully disagreed with the U.S. District Courts ruling on program duplication.

What we know is that these schools, and HBCUs in general, are heavily underfunded while serving a student population with the greatest need.  Thus, any decisions that result in increased enrollment leading to increased funding would greatly benefit these universities and the students that attend.  Also, any real consequences of this ruling hold promise for HBCUs in other states. As precedent is set requiring funding equity for HBCUs and Black students, coalitions representing HBCUs in other states may continue to bring lawsuits aimed at funding and program equity in their states as well, as we see in South Carolina.  Maryland HBCUs can only hope that the precedent set in United States v. Fordice, 1992 leads to a promising mediation or future ruling in their favor, where the State of Maryland addresses and remedies each constitutional violation cited by Judge Blake.

However, in comparison to the landmark case, United States v. Fordice, 1992 this case is developing quickly.  We are seeing momentum with settlement agreements being offered by the state and the plaintiffs, Coalition for Equity and Excellence in Maryland Higher Education, compiling a proposal detailing their suggested remedies, which directly address Jude Blake’s earlier ruling and suggestions for mediation.  The proposal is a detailed document citing results of higher education desegregation cases in several states, namely Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, which support the ultimate conclusions made by the plaintiffs.  In the proposal, the plaintiffs advise that the following measures would sufficiently address the duplication of programs ruling along with the historical defunding and ultimate attack on Maryland HBCUs:

  • Select enhancement of existing programs within each HBCU’s core areas of competency;
  • Addition of new unique, high-demand programs at the HBCUs consistent with identified programmatic niches;
  • Targeted transfer and/or merger of programs as needed to refine those areas;
  • Institutional merger of the University of Baltimore into Morgan State;
  • Joint or collaborative programs between the HBCUs and PWIs where appropriate; and
  • A reconfigured role for University of Maryland University College and the delivery of on-line degrees within Maryland’s public system of higher education.

The plaintiffs argue that the enhancement of existing programs within core competency areas, addition of new programs at HBCUs, and targeted transfer or merger of programs, would address duplication by creating unique, high-demand programs, allowing the HBCUs to attract diverse students and create distinct institutional identities.

The merger of the University of Baltimore into Morgan State University, would address the years of program duplication at the University of Baltimore that has gravely affected Morgan State University’s ability to attract and enroll new students.  This remedy would account for previous financial difficulties as well as position the university to counter current underfunding with increased tuition dollars via higher enrollment numbers.  The plaintiffs cite the benefits of the merger of the University of Tennessee-Nashville into Tennessee State University and the more recent University System of Georgia mergers as support for this measure.

Further, repositioning the University of Maryland-University College to also serve the state’s HBCU students rather than operating as an independent state university, would allow HBCUs to see increased enrollment, increased ability to compete for nontraditional students, and access to a wide range of technology that holds the potential to improve ongoing university programs among other benefits.  The proposal notes that joint programs are not on their own effective at desegregating an institution, but can reinforce similar desegregation efforts.

Prior to Judge Blake’s ruling, the Maryland Higher Education Commission had offered a settlement of $40 million over five years to be split among the four HBCU campuses - an average of $2 million for each school per year.  However, when considering the years of lost funding and enrollment due to program duplication, $2 million per school hardly seems like a feasible amount to rectify damages and address current needs to launch new programs.  Also, the settlement would have done little to significantly affect HBCU desegregation, or set precedent that might help HBCUs outside the state.  Now upon the close of mediation and the submission of a proposal by the plaintiffs, we understand that the remedies suggested in the proposal could significantly affect the sustainability of HBCUs, and their ability to attract a new student population, much like the United States v. Fordice, 1992 ruling, on which this case is largely based.



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