(Updated 1/27/2015) A new bill that would derail the controversial appointment of Robert Caret, now president of the University of Massachusetts System, as chancellor of the University System of Maryland has become the next chapter in an ongoing battle to fight duplication of programs offered by the state’s HBCUs and other vestiges of segregation.
State Sen. Joan Carter Conway, chair of the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, recently introduced SB 19, which would require the legislature to approve whomever the Board of Regents chooses to run the University System of Maryland. Currently, the ultimate authority lies with the Board.
The Board’s recent appointment of Caret as USM’s next chancellor, effective July 1, is what prompted her legislation, Conway said. While president of Towson University, Caret oversaw the creation of the university’s joint MBA program with the University of Baltimore, which duplicated an already existing MBA program at Morgan State University, a nearby HBCU. The approval of that program in 2005 was among the reasons for a lawsuit filed by students and alumni of the state’s HBCUs and a resulting federal court ruling that Maryland had violated its constitutional commitment to dissolve vestiges of segregation in higher education.
The bill has stirred division among state lawmakers, education officials and activists, drawing sometimes-contentious debate at a Jan. 22 hearing.
“This is not about fairness. This is not about what Joan Carter Conway wants. This is not about [what’s] right. This is about law,” Conway said in the hearing.
And, the fact that the regents hired someone who contributed to the state’s violation of the Constitution, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act and Supreme Court rulings on the eradication of a dual system of education is highly troubling, the Baltimore Democrat told the AFRO in a later interview.
“We entrusted them with the responsibility to weigh all the facts and do the right thing,” she said. “It is unconscionable to allow the person who was the impetus for the lawsuit to be chosen as the next chancellor of USM.”
USM Board Chairman James Shea defended their choice and also Caret’s actions, saying the then-Towson president had approached Morgan to create a joint program but was rejected, which is when he went to UB.
“In short, he didn’t create a new program; he latched onto an existing program. Of course, it is a program that in some sense is similar to what Sen. Conway has described. But Mr. Caret didn’t create it, he didn’t start a new program. He was looking out for the best interest of its students by creating an MBA program that [they] needed,” Shea said. “And we felt that, in the end, his many fine qualities and superb leadership in the University of Massachusetts System meant that he was the right choice for chancellor.”
Opponents also questioned the feasibility of the legislation given that the General Assembly meets for only three months in the year, the lack of precedent for this law and mentioned a potentially chilling effect on future candidates, among other objections.
“I do believe there will be a narrowing of the list of candidates if you do this,” testified M. Peter McPherson, president, Association of Public and Land-grant Universities.
But Conway was undeterred. “Everything they say is wrong with the bill can be corrected with regulation,” she said.
Conway’s bill has drawn the support of several members of the Maryland Legislative Black Caucus.
“Several of us will be co-sponsoring the bill with Senator Conway,” said Sen. Nathaniel McFadden, D-Baltimore. “We have been following this issue of duplication of programs at the state’s HBCUs and we, too, were concerned when Dr. Caret was selected by the system to be the next chancellor. Nothing personal against Dr. Caret—he did a great job at Towson—but there is a broader concern.”
Sen. Catherine Pugh also saw some pragmatic aspects to the legislation’s requirement that the Legislature approve the appointment of the university system’s chief executive officer.
“This is an opportunity for us to look at how we go about appointing these top executives seeing the state has so much funding invested,” she said.