Higher-ed desegregation case obscures the real problem.

Let’s get something straight right up front: Coalition for Equity and Excellence in Higher Education v. Maryland Higher Education Commission is not about desegregation and racial equity. It is about power and money. Specifically, it is about increasing the academic stature and wealth of Maryland’s historically black institutions (HBIs) by relieving them of the burden of competing with other public colleges and universities based on the quality of their programs.

As reported earlier this month in The Daily Record (“Closing arguments heard in dispute over segregation at Md. colleges,” June 9) U.S. District Court Judge Catherine Blake ruled in 2013 that the state was perpetuating a segregated system of higher education by allowing program duplication at traditionally white institutions (TWIs) that weakened enrollment at HBIs. Blake cited the formation by the University of Baltimore and Towson University of a joint MBA program as an example of “unnecessary” program duplication that harmed the MBA program at Morgan State University. That depends on whom you ask.

Missing from her analysis under Fordice v. United States was the benefit of competition to students of all races. 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.

The number of students enrolling in the Morgan State program had dropped to 28 from 62 a decade earlier, some drawn to the MBA program at UB. 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.”

The president of Morgan State at the time claimed that its failure to attract more students was due to a lack of state funding. That claim discounted the importance of leadership.

UB established its MBA program in 1972 at a time when UB was a private institution and struggling financially. The program flourished because of the efforts of leaders like former UB President H. Mebane Turner, not because state funding was any more generous than that provided to Morgan. UB achieved success the old-fashioned way – by earning it.

 

Legal rabbit hole

Plaintiffs propose moving unique, high-demand programs from TWIs like UB, Towson and the University of Maryland Baltimore County to HBIs. The leadership of the targeted schools, including the African American presidents of UB and UMBC, has warned of the dire consequences to their schools and the general degradation of the quality of higher education in the state. Forced program transfer would be an intolerable outcome of this case.

By targeting competition (“program duplication”) the plaintiffs seek to destroy that which has caused higher education in this country to flourish: Freedom of choice among public and private institutions competing for applicants. Show me the evidence that elimination of competition improves the quality of an academic program.

The decision in Fordice v. United States, decided in the context of the situation in Mississippi in the 1970s, was not intended to protect HBIs. It was intended to ensure that the educational opportunities available to black students are the same as those available to white students. Fordice does not require a state to maintain the existence of an HBI. Indeed, in his concurring opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas cautioned that Fordice could prompt states to merge or eliminate publicly funded HBIs as one means of removing the vestiges of a segregated past.

Today in Maryland access to equal educational opportunities by black students has nothing to do with the identity of a school as a TWI or HBI. It has to with economic disadvantage and tuition costs. We’re worrying about the future of HBIs rather than dealing with the real problem. A better use for the $50 million in additional funding proposed by the state for HBIs would be to put it into scholarship funds for economically disadvantaged students from Baltimore.

Applying Fordice v. United States to the situation in Maryland in 2017 is a trip down a legal rabbit hole. The outcome of this case could do irreparable harm to the system of higher education that serves students of all races in this state.

[Published as a guest commentary by The Daily Record on June 15, 2017, but not posted to my blog until December 24, 2017.  The date of posting that appears above was backdated to place all posts in the order in which they were written.]

 

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