Both the Maryland Higher Education Commission (MHEC) and the Coalition for Equity and Excellence in Maryland Higher Education are waiting for U.S. District Court Judge Catherine C. Blake’s ruling, expected in the coming weeks, in the Maryland HBCU equity trial.

The opinion will bring an end—and long-anticipated solution-to a case that some legal observers say will have a deep impact on how the nation’s historically Black colleges and universities are funded.

“The issues that are being tried in Maryland right now are a continuation of the very same issues that resulted in Brown v. the Board of Education and its subsequent cases in higher education,” said Pace J. McConkie, a long-time civil rights lawyer and director of Robert M. Bell Center for Civil Rights in Education.

“This is very much the prominent civil rights issue and an equal education opportunity case that will affect African American students in Maryland and throughout the country.”

In 2006, the coalition, a group of current HBCU students, faculty, staff, and alumni, filed the lawsuit seeking $2.1 billion from the state of Maryland, claiming that the MHEC has continuously failed to equally fund the state’s four historically Black colleges—the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, Morgan State, Bowie State and Coppin State universities-compared to their White counterparts such as Towson University, the University of Maryland, College Park and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

“A part of the case deals with the absence of equal education opportunities for the African Americans attending HBCUs, in terms of the academic programs, the infrastructure, the funding and the HBCUs’ ability to compete with traditionally White institutions,” said Michael D. Jones, lead attorney for the Coalition.

Jones said that although the current Maryland case is linked to the Supreme Court’s landmark 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education“ in that it all deals with the desegregation of higher education and the equal education opportunities for African Americans,” the 1992 Supreme Court ruling in a case from Mississippi, U.S. v. Fordice, was more of a model for the plaintiff’s approach.

He said the {Fordice} case made clear what activities point to a higher education system stuck in a trend of operating under segregated policy, such as program duplication.

The coalition alleged that the MHEC unjustly approved program duplications by White schools, a policy that undercut specialty programs at Black schools.

Simply stated, when a White school is allowed to create any specialty course that already exists at a Black school that is proximately located to the White school, the potential for improving the diversity at the Black school is diminished since White students will choose the specialty course at the White institution. Additionally, the funding for the Black school will also be negatively impacted.

Invariably when duplication has occurred, the resources applied to the specialty courses at the White institutions not only draw the potential White students away from the pre-existing Black institution which already had the courses, but Black students are also eventually drawn toward the new and better resources of the White institution as well. This results in the pre-existing Black institution specialty courses having to struggle to maintain a competitive existence in connection with the Black students it endeavors to educate.

Instead of allowing duplication in these settings, the law under the Supreme Court Fordice decision prohibits the White institution from establishing specialty courses that already exist at the Black institution, and instead requires that the state invest additional funds in the pre-existing specialty courses of the Black institution making such courses unique so as to attract a diverse body of students of all races. By enhancing the pre-existing specialty courses at the Black institution, the need to create a similar course at the White institution is eliminated and the diversity at the Black institution is enhanced. The rule does not apply to basic undergraduate core courses but only to specialty undergraduate and post-graduate courses such as engineering, business and education.

Such was the case in 1975 when Morgan had a diverse population of 263 Black and White students matriculating through it’s master’s of business administration (MBA) program, begun in 1969. Since that time, the University of Baltimore, the University of Maryland-University College and the Johns Hopkins University have all added MBA programs.

As a result of the introduction of these MBA programs into the geographic area, by 2004 Morgan’s MBA program enrollment dwindled to a total of only 28 students—all Black. Thus the diversity and enrollment that once existed at the Morgan MBA program were destroyed by the duplications allowed at the other institutions.

Therefore Morgan along with others objected to MHEC against the introduction of a joint Towson University-University of Baltimore MBA program in an effort to protect its substantially diminished program from being further impacted by another MBA program.

MHEC nevertheless approved the duplication in 2005. The next year, in October, the Coalition filed their suit. For the reasons dramatized by the Morgan MBA program and other instances, the Coalition asserts that the state of Maryland through program duplication and other practices is continuing the segregated policies and practices it has maintained for decades that perpetuate a segregated system of higher education to the detriment of Morgan and other HBCU’s in the state.

The HBCU equity lawsuit started with a six-week trial, which began Jan. 3 of last year, and was immediately followed by a period of five months when both sides of the litigation were allowed to enter written briefs, projected findings, and conclusions to the judge. 

“This case is much bigger than Morgan,” said Dr. Earl S. Richardson, who led the institution for more than two decades and also took the stand during the trial. “It’s much bigger than Maryland’s four HBCUs because this is the circumstance of historically Black colleges across the country in the 17 jurisdictions where we have Black institutions.”

Richardson said the continued disparities in education have had untold negative effects on Maryland’s historically Black institutions, which he said relieve a significant amount of the burden for Blacks in Maryland when it comes to ease of access to higher education.

“The effects have run the gamut in terms of adversely impacting image and presentation. It has adversely affected the ability to compete with the very best for their share of quality students, and adversely affected the diversity of the student body at these institutions across the country,” he said.

“This is not a struggle out of hostility. This is a struggle out of trying to achieve justice and fairness such that our institutions can grow and prosper like all other institutions.”

Closing arguments were heard on Oct. 19, and according to McConkie, the case has progressed on schedule, given the sheer amount of information and testimony involved in the case.

Pre-trial motions for the case gave the coalition the go-ahead to enter into evidence state documents from as far back as 1937.

Though McConkie and Richardson both said the case could prove beneficial to other Black colleges and universities currently battling issues such as underfunding and program duplication issues, MHEC attorney Craig A. Thompson had reservations.

“The facts are pretty specific to Maryland,” Thompson told the AFRO, adding that “hopefully the decision will be out soon.”

Jones nevertheless said that Blake’s written opinion will decide how and if other historically Black colleges can use the case as a precedent.

“It depends on what’s in the decision so we have to wait and see,” he said. “We can’t make a prediction until we see the decision.”

Throughout the proceedings graduates of Bowie State University, Coppin State University, Morgan State University and University of Maryland, Eastern Shore could be seen along with members of the faith community, faculty, and members of the current student body at the Edward A. Garmatz U.S. Courthouse in downtown Baltimore.

“Students are talking about it but there has been some confusion because there has been a long wait,” said Shaquayah McKenzie, 21, current president of the Morgan State University student body.

“I think people need to stay attentive,” she said, adding that “students are still hopeful.”

DaQuan Lawrence, a 23-year-old graduating senior and former president of the Morgan State University student body, said that even after the case is finished, the issues should still be at the forefront of current and incoming students’ minds.

“It’s not about money,” he said, “it’s about equal opportunities in the work place and in the community.”

Lawrence, a sociology major with a double minor in philosophy and criminal justice, said he hopes his younger brother will enroll at Morgan as a freshman in two years but said he will still have worries about the school’s funding in the event of a positive outcome because all four Maryland HBCUs will have to split the award if there is one.

“We’re not expecting the students to really see the money we win from the case,” he said, adding that most students care less about the money and more about the actual changes they want to see made within the system of higher education in Maryland.

“We need a lot more than a court case to get us on the same playing field as other institutions,” he said. “The court case is just the first step.”

Click here to view a video further describing the “Equality Lawsuit”:

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Alexis Taylor

AFRO Staff Writer