(Updated 11/15/2013) Never before has there been a more important conversation about Maryland higher education than the conversation surrounding the recent ruling of Federal District Court Judge Catherine C. Blake against unnecessary academic program duplication. In her ruling, the judge identifies the harm Maryland has done to its Historically Black Institutions (HBIs) by its unlawful practice and outlines several strategies for addressing it. Those strategies include enhancing existing programs, establishing new unique and high demand programs, transferring duplicated programs back to HBIs, and creating program collaborations that enhance academic offerings at HBIs.
Judge Blake’s already famous ruling has ignited a spirited discussion of whether or not Maryland will come to grips with its legal responsibility to eliminate its segregated system of higher education or seek instead to again explain it away. Will State officials continue to simply make superficial changes of little or no effect, or will they have the moral courage to undertake the difficult, but necessary task of creating a more rational system of public colleges and universities that is complementary in nature and efficient in its operation?
Most important, will State officials realize that while the court ruling provides an opportunity to address the harm done for many decades to Historically Black Institutions and their students, it provides also an extraordinary opportunity for redesigning the whole of higher education consistent with the demographic, fiscal, technological and legal imperatives of this century and beyond? These are not easy questions, but answering them will undoubtedly be exciting and of great benefit to all Marylanders.
The current system of higher education is not the product of rational state planning. It is instead the result of historical circumstances, recommendations from many ad hoc commissions, a long history of segregation, and of the political influence wielded by certain campuses and their supporters. While most of the State’s numerous ad hoc planning commissions advocated the establishment of a central planning board, the State did not establish a true coordinating board until 1976, after the system had developed into what is still in place today. Most of the major decisions made by the State that have been the result of these non-educational factors have become today’s constraints and problems. And decisions made over the last two decades have had the effect of compounding, rather than minimizing, the impact of these problems.
For example, the State has never looked to its historically black campuses to address its broader educational needs; and this is more than a problem of neglect. In failing to make its HBIs an integral part of the public sector, it has continued to selectively expand some institutions and to add too many other campuses to the system. Most are located near one or more other public campuses. This configuration of campuses results in many campuses being too small to achieve optimal efficiency and duplicate offerings that make the State system very costly. Duplicate offerings breed mediocrity by distributing money for a single area of study over five campuses rather than concentrating those dollars on one or two institutions to build world class programs.
The problem is particularly acute in the Baltimore area where there are five stand-alone comprehensive public four-year campuses from the beltway inward. Under these conditions, campuses act out of self-interest rather than in the interests of the State of Maryland. Some struggle to remain viable while others seek prestige and acclaim at the expense of the taxpayer. Both groups of institutions continuously scramble to broaden their missions, add new academic programs or expand their offerings through the doctoral degree level. But there are only so many possibilities for unique offerings or expensive doctorate degrees; and campuses often end up duplicating existing offerings. Primary emphasis on campus prestige rather than on system-wide distinction, in particular, leaves the State with many campuses, but not enough spaces for many students capable of succeeding in college.
The current practice of Maryland higher education is unsustainable in the current fiscal climate and the State will be challenged to meet its goals for producing college graduates and otherwise supporting economic development through research, technology and innovation. Demographics are changing significantly the composition of the college-age population. In just the past few years there has been a steep decline in white public high school graduates. A sharp increase in Hispanics is just ahead. African-Americans now make up over 35% of high school graduates and will maintain that share. The problem for Maryland is that there is a large academic achievement gap and degree attainment gap between whites and these minority groups. And it has not been improving. It is reasonable to expect that campuses emphasizing diversity, access and academic support will have to play a more important role if State goals are to be realized. Historically Black Institutions have always subscribed to serving an appropriate balance of the most talented and less well-prepared students; and that has made those campuses both a unique and valuable segment of the higher education community.
It is unlikely that higher education in Maryland or elsewhere will experience an extended period of generous state funding in the future. There are just too many things that states have to support. But the Court may have done the State a favor. It has provided the occasion to think carefully about the State’s higher education system, with special attention being given to its overall design; policies on academic program approval and operating and capital funding; instructional delivery systems and its framework for compliance with federal civil rights laws and obligations. That process might well begin with a consideration of the realignment of institutional missions and programs to reflect a more complementary model of higher education. That realignment would require, at a minimum, revamping various approval processes and funding practices. Also, fundamental to the operation of a complementary model is the re-establishment of a strong and independent state coordinating board with responsibility for pursuing the interests, priorities and needs of the State as opposed to the ambitions and aspirations of individual campuses. The dismantling of such a coordinating agency over the last 15 years has contributed in large part to the politicization of Maryland higher education and the resulting treatment of the HBIs and their students.
Transformation of the Maryland system of higher education within the parameters stipulated in Judge Blake’s ruling will position the State as a national leader among those states deemed to have lingering vestiges of segregation. To attain that mantle of leadership, conversations about the future of higher education cannot be narrowly focused on fears of disruption to majority-serving institutions and dire predictions of white prejudice against Historically Black Institutions. The discussion must be bold, and open to great wonder of the contributions a more comparable and competitive group of HBIs can make to the economic, social and political well-being of the state and its increasingly diverse citizenry.
Earl S. Richardson, President Emeritus and Distinguished Professor of Morgan State University.