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By Sean D. Burns

As we begin the year 2021, one thing remains unchanged from 2020:  our nation, and the State of Maryland in particular, must address decades of disparate treatment imposed upon our citizens and institutions. Once again, this reality became shockingly evident when comparing the unequal treatment of peaceful Black Lives Matter protestors in Washington, DC, during the Summer of 2020 and the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, that resulted in numerous deaths, injuries, destruction and, invariably, increased spread of the deadly COVID-19 virus – prompting many nations around the globe to label it what it was – an act of domestic terrorism. 

As the 2021 Maryland General Assembly (MGA) Session convenes, enacting HB1 / SB1 – a bill entitled “Historically Black Colleges and Universities – Funding” (HBCUs) will send a clear signal to our nation and indeed the world that the State will no longer tolerate disparate and unequal treatment of its citizens and institutions.  This bill seeks to remedy decades of unequal treatment of Maryland’s four HBCUs (Bowie State University, Coppin State University, Morgan State University and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore) relative to other state institutions of higher education. Consistent with this sentiment, Judge Catherine C. Blake of the Maryland U.S. District Court held that “ublic higher education opportunities for African Americans were either non-existent or decidedly inferior to the opportunities afforded to white citizens” in a lawsuit filed against the State of Maryland seeking redress for unconstitutional and unnecessary duplication of university programs for Maryland’s four HBCUs. 

To remedy this finding, Judge Blake ordered the State of Maryland to provide funding for scholarships, marketing, financial aid and expanded academic programs. Although the MGA heeded Judge Blake’s order and passed an HBCU equity bill in 2020, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan vetoed the legislation. Fortunately, thanks to the leadership of House Speaker Adrienne Jones, Senate President William (“Bill”) Ferguson, State Senator Charles Sydnor III, State Senator Antonio Hayes, among others, the State of Maryland has an opportunity to prove that equity and HBCUs do matter. It should not go unnoticed that this will be the first piece of legislation offered as the 2021 General Assembly session convenes which seeks to make Maryland’s HBCUs whole. For this, Speaker Jones and President Ferguson certainly ought to be commended.

As both the Assistant Vice President of Government Relations for a national non-profit organization that represents publicly-supported HBCUs, including each of Maryland’s HBCUs and a native Marylander, I take great pride in representing not only Maryland’s HBCUs, but our entire Nation’s public HBCUs, which have historically produced top teachers, entrepreneurs and leaders – most notably, Vice-President-elect Kamala Harris, U.S. Senator-elect Raphael Warnock, and my dear friends and mentors, U.S. Representative Kweisi Mfume and the late U.S. Representative Elijah Cummings. According to The United States Commission on Civil Rights, among African Americans, 40% of Members of Congress, 40% of Engineers, 50% of Lawyers and 80% of Judges are HBCU graduates.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic provides further evidence of the value of Maryland’s HBCUs,  particularly in their efforts to combat the global pandemic. For instance, Maryland’s HBCUs house critical public health-related programs ranging from nursing to pharmacy. There remains a significant need for African American health professionals given decades of mistreatment of African Americans by majority medical professionals and institutions.  Indeed, for that reason, many African Americans are hesitant or reluctant to receive a COVID-19 vaccination. Therefore, Maryland’s HBCUs will play a critical role in establishing trust, encouragement, and education to get more people in our communities vaccinated.  

For the reasons expressed above, enacting HB1 / SB1 offers the best first step toward remedying years of inequitable funding practices sustained by Maryland’s HBCUs. 

Sean D. Burns, Esq.

Sean Burns is an attorney and HBCU advocate

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