If you can’t beat the competition, eliminate it.

Last week the University of Baltimore (UB) and Towson University announced that they will end the joint Master of Business Administration (MBA) program that triggered a lawsuit against the institutions and the State of Maryland based on a 1992 decision by the Supreme Court known as United States v. Fordice.  According to the Coalition for Equity and Excellence in Maryland Higher Education the action by UB and Townson is not nearly enough to solve the disparities caused by the state’s history of favoring publically-funded traditionally white institutions at the expense of Maryland’s historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs).  The Coalition has a proposed “solution” that is as polarizing as it is absurd.

In order to remedy the effects of past discrimination within Maryland’s higher education system the Coalition proposes merging UB into Morgan State, and transferring programs in computer, electrical and civil engineering and information systems from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) to Morgan State, fulfilling the vision of Morgan State by its president, David Wilson, as a “comprehensive, urban research university.”  In other words, his vision would be achieved by eviscerating UMBC’s enormously successful engineering programs and taking over UB’s equally successful law and business programs.   Instead of developing its own successful programs Morgan State would attempt to transplant successful programs from other institutions.  Whether these programs would continue to flourish after being uprooted and moved is an open question.

It is worth noting that it was the failure by Morgan State to offer an MBA program attractive to either black or white students that preceded the decision by UB and Towson to initiate the joint MBA program in 2005.  At the time the number of students enrolling in the Morgan State program had dropped to 28 from 62 a decade earlier.  Robert Caret, then president of Towson and now chancellor of the University System of Maryland, referred to the “dwindling enrollment” in Morgan State’s MBA program and told the hard truth:  “Morgan simply has not delivered for the citizens of Maryland.”

Earl Richardson, at the time president of Morgan State and now an adviser to the Coalition, claimed that the failure of Morgan to attract more students was primarily due to a lack of state funding.  That claim discounts the importance of leadership; UB established its MBA program in 1972 at a time when UB was struggling financially.  The program flourished because of the dedication and commitment of leaders like former UB President H. Mebane Turner, not because state funding, when it began in 1975, was any more generous than that provided to Morgan.

Fordice remains a controversial and confusing decision.  It requires states that had racially-segregated publically-funded systems of higher education to eliminate all practices that tended to perpetuate the adverse consequences of the racially-segregated systems and reduced the educational opportunities available to students of the HBCUs.  “Suspect” practices include the systematic underfunding of HBCUs and program duplications that result in disadvantage to HBCUs and decreased academic choices for their students.  Program duplication is permissible, however, if based on “sound educational justification.”  The problem with Fordice is that the standard for determining whether a state has complied with its obligation to remove all vestiges of segregation for its higher education system is vague; Justice Scalia stated that the standard lacks clarity and is incomprehensible and, based on the decisions by lower courts applying Fordice, he has proved to be correct.                

To place Fordice in perspective it is worth noting that the decision does not require a state to maintain the existence of a HBCU.  The decision was not intended to protect institutions; it was intended to ensure that the educational opportunities available to black students are the same as those available to white students.  Justice Thomas raised the concern that Fordice could prompt states to merge or eliminate publically-funded HBCUs as one means of removing the vestiges of a segregated past, a measure some states have considered.

Nothing good will come of Morgan placing itself in an adversarial position with its sister institutions, especially after proving itself unable to compete with them based on the merits of its programs.  As both UMBC President Freeman Hrabowski and UB President Kurt Schmoke stated in affidavits, the solution to Morgan’s programs should not include setting back the state’s overall higher education system.

November 29, 2015

Holding bad cops accountable.

At his confirmation hearing before the Baltimore City Council, Police Commissioner Kevin Davis testified that disciplinary action against officers who violate department standards must be “swift and certain” in order to restore confidence in the department.  In an op-ed in The Sun this month, I argued instead that disciplinary action in the BPD has moved at a glacial pace (“Swift and certain’ discipline for the Baltimore Police Department,” Nov. 12).  Mr. Davis responded with a letter that accused me of misleading readers and described actions that he has taken to improve the disciplinary process (“We hold bad cops accountable,” Nov. 16).

Mr. Davis apparently disagrees with the head of his internal affairs division, Chief Rodney Hill, who on November 10th acknowledged to Jayne Miller of WBAL-TV that the process is indeed slow, with investigations alone taking from eight to 11 months because of what he described as the “thin staffing of investigators.” For some reason Mr. Davis did not mention a backlog in investigations or a staffing shortage in his letter. Who is misleading whom?

Mr. Davis also accused me of making it sound like the Maryland Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights applied only to Baltimore. The LEOBR is a law of state-wide application, but the problem to which I referred in the case of Sgt. Robert Messner of the BPD, who is accused of spitting on a suspect, is not a matter of state law. It is the city’s collective bargaining agreement with the FOP, not the LEOBR, which requires that any disciplinary action must be suspended until criminal charges have been resolved.  That is an unnecessary requirement that further slows a process already fraught with interminable delays.

Finally, Mr. Davis urged the citizens of the city “to watch our organization closely in the months and years ahead” as “we will work within the law to ensure police officers are held accountable for their actions.”  I am certain that he did not intend this admonition as a joke, but he must be aware that under current law police disciplinary actions are shrouded in secrecy. There is no information on police discipline made available by his department that can be watched, closely or otherwise.  Perhaps the commissioner will join others who seek an end to this secrecy because he cannot expect citizens to rely upon his assurances that bad cops are being held accountable.

[Published as a Letter to the Editor by The Baltimore Sun on November 25, 2015.  I did not post the letter until May 31, 2016; the date of posting listed above was backdated to place the letter on the blog in the order it was written.]

“Swift and certain” discipline for the Baltimore Police Department.

The action taken by Sheriff Leon Lott of Richland County, S.C., in firing Deputy Ben Fields for tossing a female student across a classroom is what the administration of police discipline should look like, and it looks absolutely nothing like what occurs in the Baltimore Police Department (BPD). At his confirmation hearing before the Executive Appointments Committee of the City Council, Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis stated that the administration of discipline must be “swift and certain,” yet disciplinary action in the BPD moves at a glacial pace.

Consider what will happen in the case of Baltimore police sergeant Robert Messner. Mr. Messner is charged with second degree criminal assault for allegedly spitting on a suspect who was handcuffed and lying on the ground. Common sense suggests that, after gathering the relevant facts, Commissioner Davis should be able to punish Mr. Messner if he concludes that Mr. Messner spat upon the suspect, regardless of what a criminal court does. Common sense, however, has nothing to do with the process of police discipline in Baltimore.

Under the collective bargaining agreement between the Fraternal Order of Police and the city, the criminal case against Mr. Messner must be allowed to take its course before any disciplinary action is initiated against him. Mr. Messner will be suspended from his duties while the criminal case is pending. Because second degree assault is only a misdemeanor, Mr. Messner will continue to be paid during the suspension; an officer may be suspended without pay only if charged with a felony. (Ironically, it is a felony first degree assault for a suspect to spit on a police officer in Maryland, but it is not a first degree assault for a police officer to spit on a suspect.)

A conviction on the criminal charges against Mr. Messner does not necessarily mean that the police commissioner has the right to discipline him, however. Mr. Messner gets two bites at the apple. Even if convicted of misdemeanor assault by a judge or jury, Mr. Messner retains the right under the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights to have a departmental “hearing board” decide if he is guilty of conduct that could subject him to disciplinary action by the police commissioner. The hearing board is not legally bound by a guilty verdict in the criminal case and a finding of “not guilty” by the hearing board concludes the matter and forecloses any disciplinary action by the police commissioner. In other words, even if Mr. Messner is found guilty of criminal assault by a judge or jury, Police Commissioner Davis cannot discipline him unless Mr. Messner also is found guilty by a hearing board comprised of Mr. Messner’s fellow officers.

Contrast that with the case of Ben Fields in South Carolina, where Sheriff Lott did within a matter of days that which often requires years in the BPD. Sheriff Lott had his internal affairs section gather the relevant facts as soon as possible and, based on those facts, he determined that Mr. Fields used excessive force in the course of arresting the student and that termination was the appropriate remedy. Although there is an ongoing federal criminal investigation into Mr. Fields’ conduct, Sheriff Lott did not wait for the outcome and based his decision to fire Mr. Fields on the department’s own standards of conduct rather than on the criminal law.

Although Sheriff Lott questioned the use of police officers to enforce school discipline, he stated that once called to the classroom Deputy Fields had the right to use force to remove the student. When Deputy Fields yielded to the impulse to apply a bit of street justice in the classroom, however, he crossed a line drawn by Sheriff Lott. Police work can require physical courage, and it can also require self-control. Sheriff Lott understands that the risks of keeping police officers on the force who lack self-control are too great to tolerate, as harsh as the consequences to Mr. Fields may seem. By his decisive action Sheriff Lott gave the rest of the 700 officers in his department something to think about the next time that the impulse to use excessive force comes over them in the heat of the moment.

But here in Baltimore, officers understand they get paid leave if they step over the line. Cases similar to Mr. Messner’s have taken two to three years or longer to wind themselves through the criminal justice system and the disciplinary process of the BPD. If the administration of discipline indeed must be “swift and certain” in order to be effective, then Commissioner Davis needs to explain what he intends to do to speed up the process in his department.

[Published as an op-ed by The Baltimore Sun on November 12, 2015.  I did not post the piece until May 31, 2016; the date of posting listed above was backdated to place the piece on the blog in the order it was written.]

Put the surplus to work in Baltimore.

Earlier this month Maryland Governor Larry Hogan said that the increase in crime in Baltimore was “atrocious” and that the murder rate was “out of control.” He stated that it was “horrible situation” to which a solution must be found.  Solving all of the problems that are behind the cycle of poverty and violence in the city will take a long time, but there is one problem for which something can and should be done with some of the state’s estimated $500 million budget surplus.  There are programs in the city that keep at-risk children in school, off the streets, and out of trouble, and these programs need to be expanded as soon as possible.

These programs address the following problem:  There are too many children in Baltimore who, by the time they are teenagers, are lost to life on the streets where recourse to violence is second nature.  Gang and drug-related violence is appalling but no phenomenon in Baltimore is a more alarming sign than the vicious attacks by groups of young people on victims who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.  The brutal assault on a 70 year old retired police officer is just the latest example.  Something has gone seriously wrong with the value systems of these young men and women.  Why?

One theory that tends to polarize reactions along racial lines is the absentee-father theory.  The theory is that the absence of fathers from the lives of their children, particularly their sons, makes it less likely that children will have the type of moral upbringing that helps keep them in school and out of trouble.  According to a survey released by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2013, more than 19 million children across the country — 26% — are living without a father in the home.  Among African-American children in Baltimore the rate is 69%.

Critics of the theory complain that it fails to acknowledge how institutional racism and wrong-headed social and economic policies have contributed to the plight of poor black families.  We need to put that debate aside because, regardless of how we have gotten to this point, the situation is dire:  As confirmed by a landmark 30 year study by Johns Hopkins sociologist Karl Alexander released last year 49 percent of black men from low-income backgrounds in Baltimore had a criminal conviction by age 28.

People working in the trenches in Baltimore aren’t wasting time debating.  They are doing something about the problem.  Joe Jones founded the Center for Urban Families (CFUF) in 1999.  In a 2013 interview with CNN he stated that most men come in the door looking for help getting jobs.  But Jones believes that jobs are just the first step, and that the key to creating real change in Baltimore’s troubled communities is ending what he calls “the cycle of father absence.”  “If we don’t crack the code of men having babies for whom they’re not responsible for, all of our efforts to build a better Baltimore will be limited.”  CFUF runs a program called Responsible Fatherhood.  [“A Fresh Start for Absentee Fathers,” CNN, September 19, 2013.]

Last spring, Renaissance Academy Principal Nikkia Rowe hired four men to mentor 20 students each based on her “strong belief that human beings change their behavior based on deep, interpersonal relationships.”  She added:  “Ultimately, it’s about our children not necessarily having the benefit of relationships.”  Grades are up and suspensions are down since the program began and Principal Rowe is looking for the money to hire more mentors.  [“For At-Risk Kids, Mentors Provide Far More Than Just Homework Help,” NPR, October 29, 2015.]

Baltimore’s recreation centers have been another source of support for at-risk children.  Earlier this year Brandi Murphy, director of the Lillian S. Jones Recreation Center, told NPR:  “We are mom, dad, aunt, cousin. They come here to get what they don’t have at home.  There are some parents that even to this day, I’ve had some kids for two years and still haven’t met them.”  [“In Baltimore, Rec Centers Provide So Much More Than Just Fun,” NPR, June 23, 2015.]

Programs like these work.  They keep more of Baltimore’s children in school, out of gangs, and off the streets.  The little voice in our heads that tells us the difference between right and wrong started as the voice of someone who cared about us and whose approval was important to us.  For many children from Baltimore’s poorest neighborhoods that someone will have to be a person from outside the home.  If Governor Hogan wants to address the cycle of violence in the city he should consider spending some of the state’s estimated $500 million budget surplus on services to Baltimore’s at-risk children using these programs as a model.

November 5, 2015