Changes afoot for state colleges
Plaintiffs seek damages of $2.6B in lawsuit alleging discrimination against historically black schools
A lawsuit pertaining to black colleges in regard to alleged discrimination by the state is in its fifth year, but its roots trace back to 1954 and 30 years of legal wrangling between Maryland and the federal government.
The lawsuit set to go to trial June 27 was filed in October 2006 by the Coalition for Equity and Excellence in Maryland Higher Education and alleges the Maryland Higher Education Commission and other officials have not completely dismantled racially discriminatory policies against students at historically black colleges and universities.
The state Higher Education Commission, however, maintains it has brought historically black colleges and universities up to par with traditionally white institutions. The commission establishes and oversees policies for public and private colleges and universities in the state, as well as for-profit career schools. It also administers statewide financial aid programs.
The coalition maintains that historically black institutions of higher education in Maryland still are not equally funded, and that predominantly white institutions receive preferential treatment when it comes to degree programs and infrastructure. The coalition represents alumni and students at Bowie State University, Coppin State University, the University of Maryland Eastern Shore and Morgan State University who are plaintiffs in the case. The schools themselves are not plaintiffs.
In an amended complaint filed Oct. 4, the plaintiffs state "Maryland doubled down' on its separate educational systems, creating a bigger hole out of which it had to dig its [Historically Black Institutions]."
As part of the lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland before Judge Catherine C. Blake, the plaintiffs are seeking between $527 million and $2.1 billion for operating budgets at historically black colleges and universities. The amounts exclude any capital costs the plaintiffs claim are needed to build facilities at the black schools.
As an example, the plaintiffs cited the state's decision to create the predominantly white University of Maryland, Baltimore County, in 1966, rather than invest more resources in traditionally black Morgan State.
Plaintiffs also claim that instead of sufficiently strengthening degree programs at historically black colleges and universities, such as Morgan State's MBA program, Maryland has duplicated them at traditionally white schools.
In general, the state has not sufficiently acted to end segregation in higher education, said Michael Jones, an attorney at Kirkland and Ellis in Washington, D.C., who has represented the plaintiffs pro bono since 2009.
"You can't just say, OK, what we're going to do is from here on we're going to stop discriminating,' and everybody go on their merry way, even though black schools are in a tremendous hole compared to white schools," Jones said.
In response to questions, Catherine Schultz, assistant attorney general for the Higher Education Commission, said, "We don't talk about pending litigation."
Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) has not taken a position on the lawsuit, said spokesman Rick Abbruzzese. "It's been a historical issue," he said.
The case traces back to 1969, when the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights ruled Maryland was one of 10 states that illegally operated a segregated higher education system. Since then, the state and the office have engaged in a legal battle about enforcement of the office's ruling and Maryland's response.
In 2000, the state began working with the civil rights office to improve educational opportunities for black higher education students in Maryland. In June 2006, the commission told the office that it thought it was in compliance with the 1964 Civil Rights Act, citing, as an example, $35 million in increased funding for historically black colleges and universities from fiscal 2006 to fiscal 2007.
But Jim Bradshaw, a U.S. Department of Education spokesman, said the Office of Civil Rights is still working with Maryland on the issue, and referred to the case as open.
In a deposition March 2, Earl S. Richardson, former president of Morgan State, argued that a lack of equal funding leads to fewer quality facilities at historically black schools. This, in turn, makes it more difficult to attract students, he said.
"It brings on a negativism that begins to attach itself to the race issue, and it is most devastating," Richardson testified. "It continues to feed a kind of frenzy about the inferiority of anything black."