A town hall meeting on the plight of the state’s HBCUs and their future was the site of much discussion, May 13, at Coppin State University in Baltimore.

State Del. Aisha N. Braveboy, attorney John C. Brittain, State Sen. Joan Carter Conway, Dr. John Organ, attorney A. Dwight Pettit, Dr. Earl S. Richardson and Mr. David Burton, president of the Coalition for Equity and Excellence in Maryland Higher Education, served on the panel that was moderated by George E. Curry, editor-in-chief of the National Newspaper Publishers of America.

The focus was the ongoing 2006 lawsuit in which the Coalition, representing students, alumni and supporters of Bowie, Coppin and Morgan state universities, along with the University of Maryland Eastern Shore (UMES), sued the State of Maryland for violating its legal mandate to provide equal protection and equal educational opportunity for all its citizens by maintaining and perpetuating a separate and unequal system of higher education that is segregated by race.

Last October, a federal district court found that academic programs at the four HBCUs had been unnecessarily and unlawfully duplicated, causing the schools to suffer varied loss and discriminating against the students who attend them. Del. Braveboy said the schools are due billions of dollars and emphasized that in 2014, Maryland still has segregation in higher education.

“As I researched the cases and the historical documents that were presented as evidence in the case, I realized that the State of Maryland has known of its own discriminatory practices dating back from 1937 when the first report was commissioned on the plight of historically Black colleges,” said Del. Braveboy.

She added that there needs to be parity and comparability between all the institutions in Maryland. Historically, HBCUs have been the foundation of wealth for Blacks in the country and it remains important in Maryland where 30 percent of the population is African American.

Dr. Richardson, former president of Morgan State University, said the business model is flawed because of the lack of investments being placed in HBCUs. He posited that with any business, to get the full value from that business, there needs to be a full investment. “That’s not taking place with these HBCUs.” As a result, Dr. Richardson reasoned that it is harder for any of the HBCUs to be competitive and attract students.

“I am very interested in this subject for this very reason. What does it suggest when they don’t have the resources they need to perform? It not only speaks of education, but it speaks of all of us. It sends the wrong message that if it’s Black, it’s inferior and that it’s incompetent and mismanaged,” Dr. Richardson said.

Morgan State University was the first public institution in the Baltimore region to offer the Masters in Business Administration (MBA) program. Predominantly White institutions were subsequently allowed to open similar programs, resulting in the significant reduction of White students at Morgan. In 1976 HBCUs reported having 18.2 percent White students, compared to 2008 where only 3.3 percent of students enrolled in HBCUs were White.

Pettit sat on the University System of Maryland Board of Regents and claims he was the only person on that board who voted against the practice of unnecessary duplication of academic programs.

“We as a people need to be very aware that America is moving in the negative and is retreating from the Civil Rights Movement so many people died and lived for,” he said, encouraging those in the audience to “look at the current education system, the penal system, the dismantling of affirmative action and the Voting Rights Act. It is clear we are moving backwards.”

Del. Braveboy referred to the 1992 U.S. v. Fordice decision, in which the United States Supreme Court reaffirmed the principles of Brown v. Board of Education and established the legal standard that prevails today for the desegregation of former de jure segregated systems of higher education, including the eradication of all remaining vestiges, or current effects, of such segregation and racial discrimination.

The unnecessary duplication of academic programs at the HBCUs by geographically proximate Traditionally White Institutions (TWIs) was part and parcel of these segregated and discriminatory systems of higher education and, the Supreme Court ruled, is a practice that must be eliminated.

In higher education, Maryland has the historic record of resistance and recalcitrance to the principles and specific mandate of Brown v. Board of Education for what is now 60 years. And with respect to the particular policy and practice of unnecessary duplication of academic programs, it continues.

Richardson urged that “We have to stick together like they did during the civil rights era to demand a change. As we come tonight if we want there to be a change, if we want our institutions to be as competitive as our counterparts we have to make sure our voices are heard.”

He said HBCUs do want White students and diversity is key for keeping the HBCUs as competitive.

Attorney John C. Brittain outlined four ideas to combat the current problem for change.

“Number one, we must create some new unique, high-demand programs at the HBCUs to attract diverse racially-ethnically students to those institutions to build them up. Two, transfer non-core programs from the traditionally White institutions to the HBCUs. Three, we must merge programs between TWI’s and HBI’s. Four there must be some institutional merger between the University of Baltimore and Morgan.” Under the law, it was emphasized, these and other related changes are necessary to enhance and improve the state’s HBCUs, expanding educational opportunities for African American students and making these institutions attractive, viable choices for all students regardless of race, color or ethnicity.

Jonathan Hunter

AFRO Staff Writer