Inequality and HBCUs– a CliffsNotes Version


The reason students are encouraged to avoid CliffsNotes is because in their haste to report the summary of assigned readings they may miss important themes, nuanced characters, and layers of meaning that are typically understood only with a full reading of the entire text. This caution is equally apropos about the rulings of federal courts. George R. La Noue, a professor of political science and public policy at the University of Maryland Baltimore County appears to have forgotten this caution when he described Judge Catherine Blake’s ruling in the Coalition for Equity and Excellence in Maryland Higher Education, et al., v. Maryland Higher Education Commission, et al. (Coalition v. MHEC), as “anti-climatic and antiquated.” He concluded that “closing or transferring academic programs will not integrate Maryland's historically black colleges.” Mr. La Noue’s opinions appeared in the Oct. 27 editions of the Baltimore Sun.

Mr. La Noue’s failure to fully comprehend the issues that prompted the Coalition to file its suit against the State of Maryland, as well as his mischaracterization of both the substance and the significance of Judge Blake’s ruling, is another reminder of the dangers of relying on Cliffs Notes if one is to truly appreciate important texts.

Specifically, Mr. La Noue’s assertion that “Maryland officials had glibly promised to make the state's HBIs ‘comparable and competitive’ to its traditionally white institutions (TWIs)” is contradicted by the tortuous history of civil rights and higher education in Maryland. The goal of making all of Maryland’s colleges and universities, including its HBIs, comparable and competitive was decades in the making and fiercely resisted by the state.

Based on a shallow understanding of the case, he surmises that the Coalition plaintiffs’ “ultimate goal was more state money and an expanded role for HBIs.” He asserts, without benefit of insight (since he is neither a plaintiff nor a member of the Coalition’s legal team), that: “The coalition plaintiffs had no interest in closing or merging institutions or eliminating the very substantial gap in admissions standards which would have decimated enrollment among HBIs.”

The central issue in the Coalition case is not integration, as Mr. La Noue would have us believe. The Coalition’s “ultimate goal” is, in fact, twofold: first, to stop the state from continuing to discriminate against students, regardless of race and/or ethnicity, who are attending Maryland’s public HBIs; and, second, to pursue remedies to stem the harm resulting from such continuing discrimination.

Mr. La Noue’s summary of the judge’s decision is mischaracterized, too. Judge Blake did not conclude that Maryland HBIs did not have limited missions nor did she find that the state’s HBIs had received equitable funding. Judge Blake did find, however, that “the Coalition has proven that unnecessary program duplication continues in Maryland, to the detriment of its HBIs, and is traceable to the de jure era.

Judge Blake “strongly suggests the parties enter mediation.” Mr. La Noue imagines a litany of horrors that could befall TWIs, particularly those that might affect his own university. Yet, Judge Blake’s rather limited set of proposed remedies is merely the consequences of the state’s decades-long failure to dismantle its segregated system of higher education. Mr. La Noue ignores Judge Blake’s finding of continuing discrimination by the state and proposes nothing in the way of remedies for the continuing harm.

Mr. La Noue then asserts: “While all of the once segregated TWIs have worked hard to erase that past and welcome students from all backgrounds, the HBIs still seek to retain a racial identity.” It is his final mischaracterization of this case that I find most revealing. Rather than engage in an honest and/or thorough assessment of the Coalition’s case and Judge Blake’s ruling, Mr. La Noue seems to be comfortable resorting to 1988 Willie Horton style of political theater to elicit support for his broad-brush views.

Maurice C. Taylor, Ph.D., J.D. is the Vice President for Academic Outreach and Engagement at Morgan State University. He has practiced law and taught courses in higher education in graduate programs at Morgan. He has served on a number of MHEC committees and has published widely on topics related to higher education. His email is maurice.taylor@morgan.edu

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