In Court, Group Seeks More State Support for Maryland's Black Universities

January 03, 2012

[See correction below.]

Opening statements were heard on Tuesday in a lawsuit filed by a group of students and graduates of Maryland's four historically black universities, who are suing the Maryland Higher Education Commission in an unusual bid to increase appropriations for their campuses and protect their programs from competition with colleges that traditionally enroll white students.

Lawyers for the group, the Coalition for Equity and Excellence in Maryland Higher Education, argue that Maryland is perpetuating historical policies that support a separate and unequal system of higher education, violating the U.S. Supreme Court's 1954 ruling that outlawed racial segregation in public education. The plaintiffs are seeking more than $2-billion for the four universities, along with policies that would eliminate duplicate programs at nearby traditionally white institutions or enhance similar programs at the black institutions.

"For five years, the state has vigorously opposed a lawsuit by ... students and alumni that seeks to dismantle remnants of the formerly segregated higher-education system," wrote the lawyers, Michael Jones and Jon Greenbaum.

While the Maryland suit seeks to undo practices that the plaintiffs describe as racially discriminatory, its arguments for increased state support for black universities are similar to those raised in lawsuits elsewhere that seek to increase state dollars for public schools that serve a higher number of students disadvantaged by income or learning disabilities. Those "funding equity" lawsuits have been filed by public school systems in nearly every state and have in many cases successfully forced states to consider such factors in their appropriations formulas.

Decades-Old Dispute

The trial now under way in U.S. District Court in Baltimore is the culmination of a decades-old dispute between Maryland and the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights, which since 1969 has warned Maryland that its higher-education system was, in essence, segregated and in violation of federal laws.

In 2000, the state reached an agreement with the civil-rights office to overhaul its policies and enhance the stature and competitiveness of the four historically black institutions—Bowie State University, Coppin State University, Morgan State University, and the University of Maryland-Eastern Shore.

When that agreement expired in 2006, the state reported that it had met its obligations. But the coalition of students and alumni disagreed and filed a lawsuit demanding greater change. In particular, the plaintiffs argue, the state has not fulfilled requirements to develop "high demand" academic programs at the black universities and ensure that those programs are not "unnecessarily duplicated" at nearby institutions.

For example, the plaintiffs argue, in 2005 the state's Higher Education Commission approved a master's in business administration program, to be offered jointly by Towson University and the University of Baltimore. But a similar program had been offered at nearby Morgan State since 1964. The historically black institution had strongly opposed approval of the new program, expressing concern that it would siphon students away from its own M.B.A. program, but the commission rejected those concerns.

The coalition also charges that Maryland has not spent enough to compensate the historically black universities for decades of deficient support and also to educate the largely low-income and minority students that attend those institutions.

Findings in a 2008 Report

The plaintiffs support their case, in part, with a report presented to the Maryland legislature in 2008, which was meant to recommend changes to make Maryland's historically black universities comparable and competitive with other public institutions.

But the report, prepared by a panel of national higher-education experts, found that comparisons between the state's minority-serving institutions and traditionally white colleges are more nuanced than what is described in the plaintiffs' assertions.

For example, on traditional measures of per-student appropriations, student-faculty ratios, and percentages of full-time faculty, the panel found "more similarities than differences."

What was very different, however, was the academic preparedness of the students and how they fared in college, the report concluded. Students at the historically black universities had significantly lower scores on college-entrance exams and were much more likely to come from low-income families than were students at the traditionally white colleges, the panel found. In addition, retention and graduation rates at Maryland's black universities were far lower than at the majority-white institutions.

And because of those differences, the state and the universities need different tactics to help black students succeed in undergraduate education, in particular by providing more academic support and need-based student aid, the panel reported.

State officials argue the same points in defending Maryland's practices.

An analysis of the state appropriations shows that historically black universities have received "significantly higher" amounts of "both annual operating budgets and capital allocations" per full-time student than have traditionally white institutions over the past 25 years, says a summary of the state's defense arguments.

In addition, the state contends that the bar for the plaintiffs is very high, because, it says, they must prove that the policies and practices of the state are intended to discriminate against the black universities and minority students.

"Plaintiffs are alleging that the state continues to run a segregated higher-education system, which they claim is evidenced by program duplication and capital and program underfunding," the state's attorney general, Douglas F. Gansler, said in a written statement in May. "Our office is tasked with defending the state, and has been arguing that the state has in fact worked hard to erase any vestiges of discrimination in its higher-education system."

The bench trial is expected to last about six weeks.

Correction (1/4/2012, 4:46 p.m.): The original article incorrectly stated that four historically black universities are suing the Maryland Higher Education Commission. The plaintiffs in the suit are not the universities, but a group of the universities' students and alumni known as the Coalition for Equity and Excellence in Maryland Higher Education. The headline and article have been revised to correct that error.