Students, alumni and advocates of Maryland’s four HBCUs will be back in U.S. District Court June 8 to hear closing arguments for the remedial phase of (Coalition for Equity & Excellence in Maryland Higher Education, et al. v. Maryland Higher Education Commission, et al.), commonly referred to as the HBCU Equity Trial.  The lawsuit, originally filed in 2006, has been part of the higher education landscape in Maryland for the past decade. The Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law has dubbed the HBCU Equity Trial the “Brown vs Board of Education for Higher Education” denoting its significance in the field of education.

Attorneys representing the Coalition for Equity and Excellence in Maryland Higher Education will summarize and defend remedies they were asked to propose by order of the Court to address a systemic pattern of discriminatory practices of academic program duplication advanced by the State of Maryland.  In 2013, U.S. District Court Judge Catherine C. Blake determined that academic program duplication and failure to invest in offerings of unique academic content at HBCUs represent practices and policies that continue to negatively impact these institutions. 

“I see the plaintiff’s proposed remedy as that which is necessary to reverse the unconstitutional system of higher education that the State has maintained for so many decades,” Pace McConkie, director of the Robert M. Bell Center for Civil Rights in Education at Morgan State University, told the AFRO.  Students and alumni from Morgan State University are one of four HBCUs involved in the case, along with Bowie State University, Coppin State University and University of Maryland Eastern Shore.

The Coalition’s remedy includes moving upwards of 100 academic programs from four of Maryland’s traditionally white colleges (TWI’s) – The University of Baltimore, University of Maryland Baltimore County, University of Maryland University College and Towson State to Maryland’s HBCUs.  The proposal also calls for strengthening academic programs at HBCUs and forming unique, high demand academic program niches that would attract a diverse student pool at the state’s four HBCUs.

Attorneys for the State of Maryland have argued that the remedy put forth by the Coalition would  “devastate Maryland’s higher education system.”

David Burton, president of the Coalition for Equity and Excellence in Higher Education, said that hearing closing arguments in the HBCU Equity Trial represented a powerful reminder of the momentous struggle for change and equality that encouraged him and fellow graduates of Maryland’s HBCUs to file the case more than a decade ago.  “This occasion is pretty powerful because it connects our case from day one of this trial to where we are today – from both the plaintiffs and the defendant’s point of view.”

Burton said he is certain that the Coalition’s remedy is in keeping with guidelines Judge Blake issued in her 2013 ruling.   “I feel confident that we are moving forward in the right direction and that Judge Blake will resort to her own liability findings as the framework for making decisions in the current penalty phase of this trial.”

In 2013, Judge Catherine C. Blake issued an opinion in the liability phase (initial phase) of the trial on behalf of the HBCU plaintiffs, finding the State of Maryland liable for continuing to maintain a system of separate and unequal education that negatively impacted HBCUs.

“Accordingly, it is the Court’s conclusion that the extensive program duplication in Maryland is a traceable vestige of the de jure era, that continues to exacerbate the racial identifiability of Maryland’s HBCUS by limiting their competitiveness in program offerings, and that there is no sound educational justification preventing the mitigation of this duplication,” Blake wrote.

Blake ordered lawyers for the Coalition and State of Maryland into remediation to develop and agree upon a remedy to address the systemic discrimination.  Blake established a five-point outline for remediation, ordering both parties to “ (1) eliminate and further avoid unlawful unnecessary duplication of academic programs; (2) expand mission and program uniqueness and institutional identity of the HBCUS; 3) develop programmatic niches of areas or areas of excellence at HBCUS 4) transfer specific programs from the TWIs to the HBCUS to remedy specific violations of law and 5) merge specific programs and institutions where essential to effectively meet these same desegregation obligations.”

Advocates for the State of Maryland insist that Blake has walked back the order to merge academic programs based on the current composition and structure of Maryland’s Higher Education System.

In January 2016, Blake ordered the parties back into court after the State of Maryland failed to offer substantive remedial proposals.

Blake is expected to issue a final ruling in the remedial phase of the HBCU Equity Trial before the end of 2017.  But University of Baltimore Law Professor, Jose’ Anderson doesn’t think Blake’s final judgment in this case will be the end of the story.

“Because of the time and resources invested in the case by both sides, it may be that whichever side loses, the appeals will continue until they are all exhausted.” Anderson told the AFRO.  He speculated that the case may continue to drag on quite a while longer before change comes to Maryland’s High Education System.