A group of Morgan State students, alumni and civil rights activists say a lawsuit seems to be the only remedy for ensuring Maryland complies with federal laws designed to preserve the purpose and integrity of historically Black colleges and universities.
After filing a lawsuit last week in Baltimore City Circuit Court, the Coalition for Equity and Excellence in Maryland Higher Education is awaiting its day in court. Lead attorney Kenneth L. Johnson expects the case to be heard within three to six months.
“They are discriminating against historically Black universities in a somewhat discreet manner,” says Johnson, a retired Baltimore Circuit Court judge and veteran civil rights lawyer. “They are in violation of Brown v. Board of Education.”
The lawsuit alleges that the state of Maryland is operating its public system of higher education in violation of its own laws and those of the federal government by duplicating programs already available at HBCUs, as well as providing late and inadequate funding for these institutions.
The lawsuit alleges that “the state has failed to enhance Maryland’s historically Black institutions; has failed to develop high-demand academic programs at these institutions and ensure that they are not unnecessarily duplicated at nearby universities; and, has failed to ensure that Maryland’s public HBIs (Historically Black Institutions) are comparable and competitive with Traditionally White Institutions (TWIs) in facilities, operations and programs.”
Dr. Calvin W. Burnett, the state secretary of higher education, would not comment on the lawsuit, saying he hadn’t been formerly served. But the former Coppin State University president told the Baltimore Sun last week that Maryland had made a good-faith effort to fulfill its federal civil rights obligations.
“One thing that’s great about this country is you can file a suit against a ham sandwich, but you’ve got to go into court and prove it doesn’t taste right,” Burnett is quoted as saying. “If this goes into court, I am confident … that we will be able to defend ourselves.”
David Burton, coalition president, says the group’s concerns stem from the November 2005 decision by the Maryland Higher Education Commission allowing traditionally White Towson University to offer an MBA program although students already have the option of getting an MBA from historically Black Morgan State. A decision earlier this year to allow the University of Baltimore to offer four-year academic programs in direct competition with Baltimore area HBCUs is also a concern.
According to Chris Hart, manager of public information at the University of Baltimore, the institution will begin admitting freshmen and sophomores in the fall of 2007. The university had been an upper-division institution, offering entrance to juniors through graduate programs before changing from a private to a public, two-year institution. The university offers graduate programs in business and law.
“We’re still formulating our view on the matter,” Hart says. “We have no formal statement [on the lawsuit] at this time.”
Burton says Morgan State programs in public health, electrical engineering, and science education have been duplicated at Towson. There are also similarities in programs offered at historically Black Bowie State University and the University of Maryland-University College.
“The duplication is almost across the board. It makes Bowie less relevant,” Burton says. He also points to business and computer science programs at Salisbury State University that duplicate programs at the University of Maryland-Eastern Shore.
“It’s not just spotty duplication, but replication at a rate that defies belief,” says Burton, who is a graduate of Morgan State. Federal guidelines “state that you don’t duplicate within 35 miles of the program.”
The suit is based on the principles laid out in the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in U.S. v. Fordice, the higher education equivalent of Brown v. Board of Education. The law prohibits states from duplicating at nearby traditionally White institutions programs already established in HBCUs and requires equitable funding of Black and White state schools, among other requirements.
The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights is assessing progress made by Maryland during a five-year desegregation partnership that ended in December of last year. Under the partnership, the state agreed not to establish academic programs at traditionally White schools that were “unnecessarily duplicative” of those at historically Black colleges.
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“Maryland is in violation of its own laws”
-Harmon S. Watson
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