Once again Baltimore City Senator Joan Carter Conway (D-43) has introduced legislation that would allow for judicial review of the Maryland Higher Education Commission (MHEC), a bill aimed at preventing duplication of state university programs.

However, Senate Bill 169 has been submitted during the 2014 legislative session with the benefit of a federal court decision that has declared the state of Maryland is operating a system of higher education in violation of the Constitution, specifically with respect to unnecessary duplication of programs.

The bill sponsored by Sen. Conway would mandate MHEC make a determination regarding unnecessary duplication…after receipt of a request for such a determination from Bowie State University, Coppin State University, Morgan State University or the University of Maryland Eastern Shore. Currently, MHEC is not subject to judicial review.

Among the bill’s opponents Baltimore County Senator Bobby Zirkin (D-11) believes judicial scrutiny of the commission is unnecessary and could even be harmful.

“In general, I think it’s a horrendous public policy to have state institutions suing each other,” Zirkin said. “It’s not the way to build universities, it’s not the way to build a university system and it’s not the way to raise up the level of the components of the university system,” he added.

Sen. Zirkin cited a school in his district, the University Maryland Baltimore County and its transformation over time into a nationally acclaimed STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) school.

“UMBC was a tiny little, sleepy university when I was growing up and now look at it,” Zirkin said. “It just is blossoming…computers and engineering and the sciences. They’re doing incredibly well and they did it by having a plan and funding and all the things that come with it. None of that was done by suing other schools to keep them from having things,” Zirkin added.

Sen. Conway argues that for decades the state’s HBI (Historically Black Institutions) haven’t been afforded equal resources to experience the progress UMBC and other institutions have experienced.

“Shouldn’t historically Black institutions be able to evolve and grow and not be stifled by the fact that you (HWI) have duplicated our programs?” Conway said.

“You continue to get the money for your capital (projects) we don’t, so you have a better facility…we don’t have the library resources, we don’t have the labs because they (the state) purposely and deliberately didn’t fund HBI’s,” she added.

Sen. Conway began lobbying for the duplication legislation almost 10 years ago in response to MHEC Secretary Calvin Burnett’s decision in 2005 to allow the creation of a joint MBA program at the University of Baltimore and Towson University, despite the existence of MBA programs at Morgan State University and other Baltimore area schools.

Morgan argued the new program would have an adverse affect on its MBA program and would violate the state’s agreement with the Federal Office of Civil Rights, in which Maryland agreed to encourage students to attend the state’s Black colleges and universities.

After years of legal wrangling, in October 2013 U.S. District Court Judge Catherine Blake ruled Maryland’s treatment of HBI – specifically in reference to duplication and its segregative effects – is a violation of the Constitution (the state is currently in mediation with lawyers representing Maryland’s HBI at Judge Blake’s urging).

During a sometimes contentious floor debate over the bill last week, Sen. James Brochin (D-42) of Baltimore County introduced an amendment that would strike the judicial review clause from SB 169, which according to its supporters would effectively gut the bill. But, that amendment was defeated 32-13.

Another objection by opponents of the duplication bill alleged that circuit courts cannot interpret federal law, however Baltimore City Sen. Bill Ferguson – one of the co-sponsors of SB 169 – correctly argued circuit courts do have jurisdiction to review state agencies. The bill’s other co-sponsors are: Sen. Catherine Pugh (D-40) and Sen. Nathaniel McFadden (D-45), Baltimore City; and Sen. Anthony Muse (D-26), Sen. Joanne Benson, Prince George’s County (D-24).

Earlier this month the bill passed unanimously out of the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, which Sen. Conway chairs.

Senate President Mike Miller scheduled a third reading of SB 169 for Tuesday, February 11 and at that time the Senate will take a final vote.


Sean Yoes

AFRO Baltimore Editor