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Closing Arguments in HBCU Lawsuit

POSTED: June 08, 2017, 7:30 am

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The campus of Morgan State University in northeast Baltimore

In a federal courtroom in Baltimore on Thursday morning closing arguments will be offered in one of the most significant education desegregation cases since United States v. Fordice. In that case the Supreme Court ruled the state of Mississippi had not adequately desegregated its public institutions of higher education and was in violation of the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The case being heard in Baltimore before the Hon. Judge Catherine C. Blake is The Coalition for Equity and Excellence in Maryland Higher Education v. Maryland Higher Education Commission. This is the ‘remedy’ phase of the lawsuit after the court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs’ claim that the state of Maryland’s public colleges operate under a system of de jure segregation.

The case is a decade-long campaign to address Maryland’s long-standing disinvestment and neglect of its four historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) – Bowie State University, Morgan State University, the University of Maryland Eastern Shore and Coppin State University. With an over one-hundred-year tradition, dating back to the end of the Civil War, Maryland’s HBCUs have weathered the indifference of generations of state lawmakers who steered money and other resources to the state’s traditionally white institutions (TWIs) while taking resources away from HBCUs or duplicating their offerings. In one case, the state created an entire institution out of dust – the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC) – that duplicated many of the academic programs offered at Morgan State University, just 40 minutes away in northeast Baltimore.

The plaintiffs in the case are alumni of Maryland’s HBCUs, and prospective and current students with the support of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights. The case was originally filed in 2006 with the plaintiffs alleging the state of Maryland was in violation of the 14th amendment and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Maryland had previously entered a consent decree with the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights (OCR) in 2000 based upon many of the issues now raised by The Coalition. The plaintiffs engaged in litigation acknowledging the state had fallen short of meeting the stipulations of the 2000 agreement. In 2015, after finding for the plaintiffs, Judge Blake ordered the parties to develop a remedy to address the court’s ruling. The state of Maryland failed to present a plan. In January, the remedy trial commenced.

Kristen Clarke, president and Executive Director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights noted that in 1970 Maryland’s public colleges and universities were more racially diverse than they are today. At that time 20 percent of students attending the state’s HBCUs were white. Today, whites only make up 5 percent of the student population at the state’s Black colleges. How did this happen? According to the plaintiffs’ brief, Maryland allowed its traditionally white institutions to duplicate courses and programs that were already being offered on the campuses of HBCUs. By example, Towson State was allowed to offer an MBA program despite one being already offered a mile away at Morgan State University. The same duplication occurred when Towson was allowed to offer a graduate computer science course that was already being offered at Bowie State University. The result was an exodus of white students from HBCUs as they drifted to white colleges. Today, Maryland’s traditionally white colleges offer 400 unique, non-core programs to just 60 offered at historically Black colleges and universities. Through duplication of courses and not being able to offer unique programs, the plaintiffs make the case that the state of Maryland has made it impossible for HBCUs to attract racially diverse student populations.

Clarke said the objective in the remedy phase is a “robust and comprehensive remedial plan to bring about a racially integrated system.”

“This is the unfinished business of our democracies,” suggested David Burton, president of The Coalition for Equity and Excellence in Maryland Higher Education. Burton said he was “grateful to be at this moment in the case’s history” and noted the current practices of the state of Maryland’s higher education system was contrary to the 2000 agreement the state signed with the federal Office of Civil Rights. Blake cited the state’s heavy investment in Towson State University and the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, the duplication of Morgan State’s MBA program against the advice of OCR and counsel of the state’s Attorney General, and expanding the University of Baltimore from a 2-year to a 4-year college as examples of Maryland favoring its predominantly white institutions.

As part of any remedy, Clarke suggested there must be consideration of the necessary investments in infrastructure and the physical plants of the state’s HBCUs to establish parity with their white peers. One of the most glaring examples of the disparity in investment is the manner in which Maryland poured tens of millions of dollars in new facilities on the campus of Towson State University in the 1970s while providing Morgan State University substantially less. The two campuses sit about a mile apart with Morgan at the outer edge of Baltimore and Towson in Baltimore County.

The parties do not expect Judge Blake to issue a ruling from the bench after closing arguments are presented Tuesday morning. Given the history of the case though The Coalition for Equity and Excellence in Maryland Higher Education hope a ruling will be forthcoming soon.

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