Maryland lawmakers are exploring using mediation and binding arbitration instead of the courts to address a dispute between duplicative programs at state universities that has raised allegations that the state is violating federal desegregation law.
The dispute over a Maryland Higher Education Commission decision relating to MBA programs at historically Black Morgan State University and a joint program at Towson University and the University of Baltimore has been a difficult issue for lawmakers this legislative session.
Some lawmakers fear a bill enabling Morgan State to take Towson to court would be unprecedented, allowing public universities to sue each other over a state commission’s decision and producing potentially stomach-churning legal bills.
The Maryland Senate already has passed the bill 27-19 after a whirlwind of amendments and heated debate.
Members of the House Appropriations Committee, which is now considering the bill, have been taking a close look at the measure. Members met Tuesday afternoon to discuss alternatives to court. Nothing final has been decided.
The members are considering amending the bill to require the dueling universities to first try mediation. If that fails, a three-member panel would decide the matter. The panel would consist of someone chosen by Morgan State, a person selected by Towson and a third person chosen by all parties. Committee members plan to keep meeting to try to iron out an arbitration process agreeable to all sides.
“I think the important thing in the end is to make sure the institutions involved here feel like they’re getting a fair shake,” says Rep. John Bohanan, D-St. Mary’s County
But with the General Assembly adjourning on Monday, lawmakers are going to have to move quickly on a tough issue.
Sen. Joan Conway, D-Baltimore, a sponsor, doubted that lawmakers could assemble a neutral panel that would satisfy everyone.
If an HBCU requests it, Conway’s bill would force MHEC to review whether unnecessary duplication exists, It also would allow the matter to be taken to circuit court.
The bill was crafted to address a MHEC vote in 2005 that endorsed Towson and the University of Baltimore’s joint MBA program.
Morgan State has argued that the Towson program duplicated its MBA program and would lead to further segregation in Baltimore-area universities. Morgan State has had the MBA program for more than 30 years.
Maryland signed an agreement with the federal Office for Civil Rights in 2000 requiring it to work toward upgrading historically Black colleges.
Conway has argued that Maryland is one of six states under a federal desegregation order, and the state is currently violating it.
Lawmakers passed a bill last year that would have enabled institutions of higher learning to appeal MHEC decisions on course duplication to a circuit court. But former Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich vetoed it.
A spokesman for Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Democrat, has said the current governor is inclined to support the bill passed in the Senate.
The University of Baltimore’s MBA program, which was created before the program with Towson was proposed, graduated about 1,800 students from 1996 to 2005. There are reportedly about 30 students enrolled in the joint program at Towson.
Morgan State graduated 235 students from its MBA program between 1996 and 2005. But the number fell to 13 in 2005. According to MHEC, there were 28 students enrolled in the program last year.
— Associated Press
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