Maryland Challenges Desegregation Plan at Trial

BALTIMORE (CN) — Eleven days into a trial on stamping out segregation in Maryland’s public colleges, a federal judge has heard from nine witnesses regarding a proposal expected to cost more than $1 billion.

White students make up just 6 percent of enrollment at the historically black institutions of Morgan State University, University of Maryland Eastern Shore, Bowie State University, and Coppin State University.

The trial underway to remediate these numbers comes after U.S. District Judge Catherine Blake found in 2013 that Maryland’s Higher Education Commission had failed to desegregate the higher education system.

Blake’s ruling identified unnecessary program duplication as a contributor to the problem, and the Coalition of Equity and Excellence in Maryland Higher Education has proposed development of high-demand, unique programs as a way of bringing diversification.

Morgan State President David Wilson testified on the opening day of the remedial trial that his university would benefit from expanded academics.

“I want to see top-quality, unique programs at Morgan where students, regardless of color or ethnicity, would come because those programs are second to none,” he said.

In a 241-page remedial plan filed with the court in June 2016, two professors tapped by the coalition recommended that the HBIs, short for historically black institutions, take over academic programs at Towson University, the University of Baltimore, the University of Maryland University College, and the University of Maryland Baltimore College.

“This court should be guided by substantial evidence that suggests that when HBIs offer non-core programs which are unique and high-demand, white students are much more likely to attend those HBIs,” the report states.

The co-authors of this study – Clifton Conrad, of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Walter Allen, of the University of California, Los Angeles – defended their plan on the stand.

“You have to have a high-quality, unique program that is not offered down the street,” Wilson said.

Maryland meanwhile says the coalition’s proposal cannot withstand scrutiny. “Not only is their proposal based on a strategy which has never been adopted or implemented in any state … it is unsupported by studies or objective evidence from the social sciences showing that students choose colleges on the basis of ‘programmatic niches,’” one of the state’s court filings says.

Secretary of Higher Education James Fielder testified about the problems Maryland could see from transferring programs. “It would be very disruptive to these institutions,” he said.

Aside from Fielder, Conrad, Allen, the presidents of the four HBIs and a higher education consultant have each faced rigorous cross-examination at the trial from the state’s attorneys, Cy Smith and Catherine Duval, of the firm Zuckerman Spaeder.

Marvin Cheatham, a prominent civil rights and community leader in Baltimore, has been following the case since its inception. “This case is the epitome of the fight for civil rights,” he said in an interview. “This case reaches back more than 50 years and harkens to what is at the heart of Brown v. Board of Education and the Fordice decision.”

Decided in 1992, the Supreme Court’s Fordice case was the higher-education equivalent of its landmark desegregation ruling of 1954, Brown v. Board of Ed.

Judge Blake has found Maryland’s unnecessary program duplication “comparable to, and in some cases more pronounced than, the duplication found in Mississippi during the Fordice remand proceedings that held the state liable for failing in its desegregation efforts.”

Maryland and the black schools were supposed to collaborate on a desegregation plan, but each of the parties opted to create its own proposal after talks broke down.

A version of the state’s plan that Blake already rejected sought to introduce high school students to the historically black universities through summer programs, with $10 million in funding drawn from all the state’s educational institutions.

“It is clear that the defendants’ remedial proposals are neither adequate nor sufficiently specific, although collaborative programs are indeed helpful in certain circumstances,” Blake wrote.

Neither the Maryland Attorney General’s Office not the Office of Gov. Larry Hogan has responded to repeated request for comment.

Wilson, the Morgan State president, called the state’s plan “embarrassing, woefully inadequate.” His school, which currently enrolls 7,500 students, wants $683 million plan to add new programs, facilities and faculty.

Saying that no one from the state contacted him or anyone in his administration while forming its plan, Wilson testified that Secretary Fielder instead met with him after the fact.

The coalition brought its desegregation action in 2006, a year after the state approved a joint MBA program between Towson University and the University of Baltimore.

The program allowed students to take classes at both campuses and online, but Morgan officials argued that the program would draw students — white students, in particular — from its own MBA program, where white enrollment had fallen since UB began offering MBA degrees in the 1970s. Towson and UB have since ended their joint MBA program.

Representing the coalition is Jon Greenbaum with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

At a Jan. 9 press conference after the first day testimony, Greenbaum said Judge Blake “gave specific guidelines for the production of the remediation plan, and the state ignored those instructions.”

“No one has taken the state’s proposal seriously,” Greenbaum added.

Defending the state’s position, secretary Fielder testified that the coalition has over the years denied several attempts by TWIs, short for traditionally white institutions, to offer programs that would duplicate offerings at the black schools.

“Let me restate the role of MHEC,” said Fielder, who has been in office since December 2015. “Our responsibility is to review programs as submitted by the institutions. The institutions have the self-determination within their own mission to submit a request for academic program approval. MHEC’s role is not to solicit or ask institutions to create programs.”

Fielder also said MHEC was a forward-looking organization. “If we’re driving forward by looking in the rearview mirror something bad is going to happen,” he testified.

The trial is expected to last another three weeks as the state begins its case.

Greenbaum’s co-counsel Michael Jones said Maryland “has ignored the court’s order and has failed to act in good faith.”