Maryland AG’s Chief Counsel for Opinions and Advice, Patrick B. Hughes, told the Maryland Higher Education Commission (MHEC) that their vote to approve a doctoral business program at Towson University (TU) had ‘no legal effect.’ An MHEC official initially deemed the program too similar to one at Morgan State University, but the TU program was ultimately approved in an MHEC review meeting. (Courtesy photos)

By Alexis Taylor,
AFRO Managing Editor

The Office of the Maryland Attorney General (AG) has advised the Maryland Higher Education Commission (MHEC) to rethink their decision to allow Towson University (TU) to operate a doctoral business program. 

MHEC officials admitted earlier this year that TU’s program had elements that were “similar” to the offering at Morgan State University (MSU), the historically Black institution less than six miles away. Still, they voted to approve TU’s doctoral business program.

“After receiving inquiries from our legislative partners earlier this month about the process the Maryland Higher Education Commission followed in voting on June 27 to approve Towson University’s doctoral program in business analytics, the Commission sought advice from the Office of the Attorney General as to whether the proper legal process was followed,” said Rhonda Wardlaw, director of communications for MHEC, in a statement. 

“Today, the Commission received that advice, which concluded that the Commission had not followed the proper process and, thus, that the Commission’s decision was of no legal effect. The Office of the Attorney General further found that the review process set forth in the Commission’s regulations likely require the Commission to meet again to vote on the academic program under review.” 

MSU has offered The Ph.D. Program out of their Earl G. Graves School of Business and Management (SBM) since 2001, according to their website. The institution was just one of four historically Black colleges or universities (HBCU) that sued MHEC in part because of program duplication that caused demonstrable harm. 

That lawsuit, which also addressed funding inequity between Maryland’s predominantly White institutions (PWIs) and HBCUs, was settled only two years ago. After a 15-year battle, the state’s four HBCUs walked away with an agreement to receive $577 million in general funds over a ten year period.

Now, in 2023, the issue of program duplication has returned. 

On Apr. 7, MHEC’s Assistant Secretary for Academic Affairs Emily Dow, Ph.D., said the TU program was “unreasonably duplicative of two specific concentrations within the Ph.D. Business Administration program at Morgan: the Information Systems and the Supply Chain and Logistics Management concentrations.” 

TU president Melanie Perreault, Ph.D., asked MHEC to reverse Dow’s decision. 

On June 14 she gave a presentation in an MHEC review meeting and on June 28, MHEC sent a letter to Perreault informing her that her request was granted.

TU officials thought the matter was done and settled– and rightfully so. The letter sent in late June said that the “matter final and not subject to further review.”

HBCU advocates raised their voices. And then legislators began to ask questions. 

Catherine J. Motz took over as MHEC chair after the June decision. As the board that coordinates and makes regulations for Maryland’s institutions of higher learning, Motz sought another opinion. 

The answer received from the Maryland AG’s Chief Counsel for Opinions and Advice, Patrick B. Hughes, is clear. 

“At a recent meeting, the Commission—with seven out of twelve Commissioners present—voted 4–3 to reverse a decision of the Secretary that had disapproved a proposed new program at Towson University,” said Hughes, in the letter sent to Motz on Aug. 17.

Hughes states that because the vote to reverse the original MHEC decision “qualifies as a ‘formal action…a decision by the Commission either to affirm or to reverse the Secretary requires a majority of the members serving on the Commission—which will ordinarily be seven, assuming there are no vacancies—to vote in favor of the outcome.” 

“Here, because less than a majority of the total Commission members serving at the time voted in favor of reversing the Secretary’s decision on Towson’s business analytics program, the Commission’s vote was of no effect, and the Secretary’s decision remains in place, at least for the time being,” he said. 

Hughes determined that “the Commission is likely required, by its own regulations, to meet again to attempt to render a decision with the necessary number of votes on Towson’s request for review.”

Previously, the AFRO spoke with State Senator Mary Washington, who serves District 43 where Morgan State University is located. She said she has been in contact with President Wilson.  

“The legislature just appointed a work group under House Bill 200 (HB 200) to assess the policies of MHEC make recommendations on MHEC’s approval process. Their report is due December 31.  Our committee looks forward to receiving those recommendations,” she said in a July interview. 

Wardlaw said in her letter that “MHEC is looking forward to working with the Maryland General Assembly’s workgroup, which will provide recommendations to strengthen and improve the academic program review process later this year.” 

“The Commission remains committed to engaging with leadership from all of Maryand’s higher education community and working collaboratively with all stakeholders to reform and improve the academic program review process,” Wardlaw wrote. 

When asked for comment, TU responded a statement, saying “the Attorney General has only determined that the voting process at MHEC was flawed, this is not a statement about program duplication.” 

“USM leadership continues to believe that the Towson doctoral program in business analytics is distinct from the existing business administration doctoral program at Morgan State University,” the statement continued. “TU has followed all established MHEC procedures in gaining approval for its new program. TU awaits additional guidance from MHEC on next steps in this process, given the unprecedented circumstances just days before the start of the fall term. At this time, our entire focus and energy is on serving our students.”

MSU President David K. Wilson, Ed.D. also responded to AFRO requests for comment with a statement on the matter: 

“On behalf of the entire Morgan State University community, I express our great appreciation for the due diligence of the Office of the Attorney General and the Maryland Higher Education Commission (MHEC) in reviewing the circumstances surrounding the unreasonable duplication of Morgan’s long standing, high-quality and affordable Business Administration Ph.D. program,” said Wilson. “We also appreciate the strong support received from the Morgan State University Board of Regents, along with the Maryland Legislative Black Caucus, particularly Chair Delegate Jheanelle Wilkins and Senator Charles Sydnor, and many others, who have worked in unity to bring about this equitable outcome. Throughout this process, we remained confident that our concerns would ultimately be fairly addressed.”