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Trial Over Fix for Segregation at Maryland Colleges Begins

BALTIMORE — A trial to determine the best way to cure inequality among Maryland’s colleges and universities is underway in federal court in Baltimore.

The decade-old case being heard Monday involves a coalition representing the state’s four historically Black colleges that says the state has underfunded the institutions while developing programs at traditionally White schools that directly compete with and drain prospective students away from the African-American schools.

The trial will determine a remedy.

The judge in 2013 recommended mediation after finding the state had maintained “a dual and segregated education system,” and that its practices were in violation of the Constitution. The judge agreed with the coalition that the state allowed traditionally white schools to replicate those of historically black institutions (HBCUs), thus undermining the African-American schools’ success.

The Coalition for EquiBy and Excellence in Maryland Higher Education has sought remedies from the state that include creating programmatic niches at each of the four HBCUs to attract students. The group proposed either the creation or transfer of roughly 100 programs. For example, the coalition wants to move a computer engineering program from University of Maryland, Baltimore County, to Morgan State University in Baltimore, and to transfer a homeland security program from Towson University to Coppin State University in Baltimore.

During opening statements, Michael Jones, an attorney representing the coalition, told U.S. District Judge Catherine Blake that “important constitutional rights are at stake.”

Cy Smith, a lawyer representing the state schools, balked at the idea that the higher education system is still segregated.

“Maryland is simply not a dual system in any sense of the word,” he said, “and the remedy should reflect that.”

Smith argued that transferring programs already thriving at traditionally white institutions, many of which now host more minority students than Caucasian ones, will hurt the system’s student body as a whole. Additionally, he said that there is no scientific data to prove that developing niche programs will attract a more diverse student body or ensure success, adding that because programs and schools should have the freedom to change and adapt, “it’s a mistake to lock a university into a program.”

“We’re going to shut down programs at non-HBIs and hope they work at another institution?” Smith said. “These programs are not chess pieces that can be moved around a board,” adding that the proposed remedy poses “an unthinkable risk” and is “a high-stakes gamble.”

Jones called his first witness on Monday afternoon, Morgan State President David Wilson.

Wilson, who joined the school in 2010 and currently serves on President Barack Obama’s 11-member Board of Advisors on Historically Black Colleges and Universities, said if a state “is serious about desegregating historically Black colleges and universities, you best do that by implementing unique, high-demand programs that could not be duplicated by a White institution nearby.”

Wilson said there are several ways to diversify, but the most significant approach is simply offering programs that provide a draw.

Wilson also said that the first step that should be taken to rectify some of the problems outlined in the suit is returning courses that have been duplicated at traditionally white schools and return then to the HBCUs where they originated.

“When we look at how many programs at Morgan have been duplicated at nearby universities, transferring those programs back would be a good place to start,” he said.

Testimony will continue today.

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