(Courtesy of Bowie State University Office of Public Relations)
By Deborah Bailey
Special to the AFRO
In a low key signing ceremony, March 24 at Bowie State University, Governor Larry Hogan finally signaled a willingness for the State of Maryland to put an end to a long history of discrimination in higher education.
Surrounded by Senate President Bill Ferguson and Speaker of the House Adrienne Jones, Hogan signed a $577 million funding bill for Maryland’s four historically Black colleges. State lawmakers passed the Maryland HBCU Funding bill earlier this month to allocate funds over a period of 10 years starting in 2023.
“This is it. We’re glad the Governor is on board and has signed the legislation,” said Senator Charles Sydnor (Baltimore County). Hogan vetoed a similar bill passed by state lawmakers in 2020.
Getting to the HBCU signing ceremony has been a journey for Hogan. Back in 2017, U.S. District Court of Maryland ruled that Maryland continued to violate the 14th Amendment by academic program duplication between its HBCUs and PWIs. The Court ordered Maryland to remedy HBCUs by creating unique academic programs.
In 2018 Hogan initially responded by offering a combined total of $100 million over 10 years, an offer that was rejected. Then Maryland appealed the District Court ruling; but in 2019, the U.S. Fourth Circuit District Court told Maryland to go back to the table and provide a reasonable settlement offer. Hogan balked and raised his offer to $200 million over 10 years. By Fall, HBCU supporters and legal counsel Michael D. Jones reached out directly to the Maryland General Assembly with a $577 settlement proposal. Sydnor was one of the first on board.
“This time we passed it early enough in the session so that if it would have been vetoed we would have been ready,” said Sydnor, declaring legislators’ resolve to move forward in responding to the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals to settle the case and create a remedy for its HBCUs.
While Sydnor’s work and that of his colleagues in the Maryland General Assembly is complete – at least for now, HBCU advocates caution that the real work to dismantle what the U.S. District Court of Maryland declared a statewide “de-jure” segregated system of higher education, is just beginning.
“It’s the right time to start thinking about the next phase of the case: the implementation,” said David Burton, lead plaintiff in the court case originally filed in the U.S. District Court in 2006 and president of the Coalition for Excellence and Equity in Higher Education (The Coalition).
The case was filed after the State of Maryland failed to meet the terms of a Partnership Agreement it entered into with the U.S. Department of Education’s (USDOE) Office for Civil Rights (OCR) back in 2000.
The US-DOE gave Maryland an opportunity to voluntarily come into compliance with the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 with respect to the operation of higher education. The next step for Maryland HBCU advocates was the courts, according to the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
Burton, active in the case since it was first filed, wants people to look at more than the $577 legislative price tag designated for HBCUs over the next 10 years.
“It’s important to make sure the execution is handled effectively,” Burton said.
Burton and attorneys representing The Coalition will return to the 4th Circuit Court in Richmond and iron out final details to formally settle the case. “The final agreement will be written between the 4th Circuit Court and the Coalition,” he said.
“We are pleased the General Assembly has taken the groundbreaking step of enacting veto-proof legislation to settle our 15-year-old case and enable the HBCUs to have the resources to develop unique, high-demand programs,” said Jon Greenbaum, chief counsel and deputy director for the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
The Lawyers Committee and the law firm of Kirkland and Ellis will represent The Coalition in final negotiations for the court case.
Sharon Blake, chair of MD HBCU Advocates, also sees the bill signing as a first step in a long road. “This is just the beginning. There is still more work to be done and we will have to continue for some time to remain watchful advocates for HBCUs,” Blake said.
Blake said HBCU friends and advocates must remain vigilant. “History tells us that as we move forward we need to be cautious,” she said. “When you change one part of the system, you need to be aware that other parts will need to be changed.”
“We have to keep the big picture in mind,” said Pace McConkie, director of Morgan State University’s Robert M. Bell Center for Civil Rights in Education, in response to Hogan’s bill signing this week.
“I’m very glad the Governor has signed the legislation to fund HBCUs. Yes, I think we are at an inflection point, but it took litigation to get to this point,” said McConkie.
“We must remember, the State of Maryland is liable for discrimination and unconstitutional conduct and the State of Maryland had to remedy that violation, he added.”