Morgan State University President David Wilson was wrong in attempting to preempt or otherwise influence the final judgment of the Maryland Federal District Court by proposing several joint programs with Towson University. However, the Morgan State University Board of Regents was absolutely right in realizing that proposing those programs under current state policies, practices and conditions only promotes the State’s strategy for maintaining a system of higher education which the court declared to be in violation of the U.S. Constitution. That insight appears to have resulted in a withdrawal of the President’s proposal, but not before the public was reminded once again of the continuing rift between the President and his governing Board over the best interests of the University.
President Wilson’s program proposals, whether intended or not, clearly support the State’s senseless argument that the State can eliminate historic and future program duplication by leaving in place unconstitutional duplications that the Court deems to be at the root of disparities in funding, mission and facilities at the Historically Black Institutions. More importantly, the proposal of the joint programs provides a window into supposedly confidential mediation talks between the State and the Coalition representing the HBIs which are, in fact, being played out constantly in the pages of the Baltimore Sun and other media.
Sometimes those revelations are cloaked in what may appear on the surface to be innocent press stories or balanced and objective articles related to public colleges and universities. A good example is the announcement of former Baltimore mayor Kurt Schmoke as the next President of the University of Baltimore where the individuals being quoted stopped just short of declaring UB rather than Morgan, the legislatively designated urban institution, to be Maryland’s public urban university. In other instances, there appears to be more direct accounts of mediation discussions.
A May 26, 2014 article quoted state leaders as saying during mediation they are exploring shared programs between Historically Black colleges and universities and other state institutions of higher learning as a possible remedy to unnecessary duplication. What is more, the Sun’s latest editorial on Morgan’s board’s refusal to embrace their president’s proposals for joint programs under the current ground rules lay the groundwork for blaming Morgan if the mediation is unsuccessful.
Taken together, this carefully scripted and well-orchestrated set of initiatives by the state and its minions are part and parcel of what U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder meant when he described for the Morgan graduating class of 2014 the subtle nature of the continuing threat of racial discrimination in this country. Holder explained that outbursts of bigotry are not the true markers of the struggle that still must be waged since the greatest threats do not come in screaming headlines or discriminatory statues like “separate but equal.” The true indicators are more subtle, appear race neutral, cut deeper, and their terrible impact endures long after the headlines have faded and the racial outbursts have been denounced.
What Holder has described is precisely how the State of Maryland has managed for so long to escape accountability for its discriminatory system of higher education and HBI students, faculty, staff and other constituencies must not continue to bear the brunt of redress. Also, to the extent that HBI presidents and other seek to conspire with the State against their institutions, the governing board must act forthright even if that means incumbents are not reappointed at the expiration of their respective terms.
This is a pivotal moment in the history of higher education in Maryland and the outcomes of this litigation will have broad impact on issues of race and education for many years to come. While it may not have been clear why the Morgan Board made certain decisions in the past, there is no doubt they are on the right side of the joint program debate.
Finally, if the State is serious about resolving the Coalition litigation, it should declare a moratorium on any programs’ considerations involving the non-HBIs until the litigation is settled. Otherwise it can only make a bad situation even worse.
A. Dwight Pettit is a former member of the University Systems of Maryland Board of Regents.