Erasing Racial Bias in State Colleges

July 02, 1992

Doomsayers, such as Justice Antonin Scalia, believe the Supreme Court's 8-1 ruling ordering Southern states -- including Maryland -- to erase vestiges of discrimination in state colleges will mean "the elimination of predominantly black institutions."

Optimists, such as Justice Clarence Thomas, feel otherwise. The ruling, they believe, will compel states to strengthen historically black colleges and make them full partners with their predominantly white counterparts in public higher education.

There is little doubt among Maryland educators, though, that much of what Justice Byron White laid out as criteria for examining the extent of the bias in once-racially segregated college systems is already being addressed here. The Supreme Court ruling could, though, accelerate efforts to improve historically black institutions and to increase black enrollment at predominantly white schools.

Since 1985, Maryland has been following a desegregation plan approved by the Justice Department's Office of Civil Rights. State officials say the five-year plan has achieved most of its major objectives. Over $140 million in capital improvements were made at the states' four traditionally black colleges; operating budgets were enlarged; new programs were implemented at these schools; black graduate students increased 28 percent; by the final year, 1989, blacks accounted for nearly 17 percent of all college students in the state.

And yet the litmus tests mentioned by Justice White, such as equitable admissions standards, comparable mission assignments and program duplication at various state colleges could pose some problems for Maryland educators.

Maryland's historically black institutions need more funds if they are to offer the remedial education necessary to help the large numbers of disadvantaged students that enroll there. They need the kinds of diverse undergraduate and graduate offerings that will make these campuses attractive to students -- black or white. And white colleges need more money for the kinds of special programs offered at College Park and UMBC to make black students an integral part of campus life.

Enhancement of historically black colleges is now embedded in Maryland's higher-education law. It is a fundamental obligation of state government to uplift these campuses. It seems to be working: enrollment at these four colleges is booming even at a time when overall college enrollment is stagnant. A number of educators believe it is due to the new buildings, new academic programs and higher quality offered by these schools as the state has focused more resources on these institutions. That seems to be the best way to remove remnants of Jim Crow, with or without prodding from the Supreme Court.

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