The state and the coalition representing students and alumni from Maryland’s four HBCU’s in a controversial legal case are discussing a settlement. But, adding to the complexity of the case, the state has hired Kenneth L. Thompson, a prominent Black attorney with private law firm Venable, LLP and two of his colleagues to assist with their defense.

Assistant Attorney General Campbell Killefer, who blurted out incendiary remarks about the role of HBCU’s during a summary judgment hearing last May, remains the head attorney for the state, according to David Paulson, a spokesman for the Attorney General’s Office. But he did confirm that the Attorney General’s Office has “sought the additional help of a local firm.”

Calls to Thompson’s office were not returned by AFRO deadline.

Amid the private rumblings of those outside the case, who question whether the state intends to use a “Black face” to ease tension in this racially-charged case, both parties sat down for a private meeting and a subsequent telephone settlement conference June 20 and 21. The discussions were confidential, but a spokesman for the Maryland Attorney General’s Office said they “are making progress in settling.”

But continued settlement talks could push back the jury trial tentatively set for July 11.

The plaintiffs said they were open to delaying the trial for a month or two, but presiding Judge Catherine C. Blake’s next available slot for a trial is in December. “We don’t want to push it that far out,” said Michael D. Jones, lead attorney for the coalition. Plaintiffs have until June 28 to decide whether they want to continue with the July 11 date or continue negotiations and opt for a December date.

Paulson said, “It’s always better to settle than to go to trial. A lengthy trial doesn’t serve anyone well, including the students,” he said.

Jones says if discussions continue the plaintiffs want to ensure that the HBCU’s benefit.

“We want to be sure that however we come to a resolution, it will be meaningful for the HBIs.”

Litigation dates back to 2006, when the Coalition for Equity and Excellence in Maryland Higher Education sued the state for alleged discriminatory funding practices and other policies. The practices, the plaintiffs assert, exasperate disparities between HBCUs and “traditionally White institutions,” making it difficult for HBCUs to compete.

The state filed two motions of summary judgment to have the case dismissed, but Blake ruled earlier this month that the coalition presented sufficient evidence to proceed to trial, except on claims of discriminatory capital funding measures.

In a memorandum, the judge said she would hear more testimony on the state’s operational funding procedures, approval of a Morgan State-like MBA joint-degree program at Towson University and the University of Baltimore, and the HBCUs’ ability to control their mission statements.

Plaintiffs submitted a motion on June 15 for Blake to reconsider her dismissal of the capital funding claims and to clarify how exclusion of capital funding would impact their allegations of disparities in the closely-linked areas of program quality and academic missions. They also want to ensure the institutions can seek additional capital funding if they were to win the suit.

Blake has yet to address the motions, but will likely make a decision after a trial date is solidified.

 

Shernay Williams

Special to the AFRO