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

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