Maryland, other states watching Miss. case

April 27, 1994|By Thomas W. Waldron

Maryland higher education officials, along with their counterparts in states across the once-segregated South, are carefully watching the unfolding desegregation case in Mississippi.

Two years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Mississippi's college system, which has some similarity to Maryland's, was unlawfully segregated.

But the Supreme Court decision gave Mississippi and other states little specific guidance on how they should desegregate their campuses.

"We're looking to the courts for help. We need clarity," said John K. Anderson, head of the Maryland attorney general's education division.

The issue returns to a federal courtroom in Oxford, Miss., next week. Black plaintiffs will be fighting for dramatic improvements in Mississippi's three historically black universities, even by taking programs and money from the five predominantly white colleges.

In the 1970s, federal authorities found that Maryland and 18 other Southern and border states were maintaining unlawfully segregated systems.

Of Maryland's 13 major public campuses, four are historically black: Morgan State University and Coppin State College in Baltimore, Bowie State University in Prince George's County, and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore.

In 1985, the state enacted a five-year plan to integrate its campuses, including scholarship money for minorities and some physical improvements at the four historically black colleges.

The plan expired in 1990, and the state submitted a summary the next year of what had been accomplished. Three years later, state officials are still waiting to see if their efforts pass federal muster.

The federal review was slowed by the 1992 Supreme Court decision in the Mississippi case, which established stricter standards for judging discrimination efforts.

Today, Morgan and Coppin are both more than 95 percent black, while Bowie and UMES have attracted larger numbers of white students.

"Maryland since the early 1980s has been very affirmative in removing vestiges of discrimination," says Shaila R. Aery, the state secretary of higher education.

One of the most complicated issues facing Maryland and other states is the duplication of academic offerings at mostly white and mostly black colleges, something the Supreme Court said promotes unlawful segregation.

Last month, Dr. Aery rejected a proposal from the University of Maryland Baltimore County to offer a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering.

The program, Dr. Aery said in a March 25 letter to UMBC President Freeman A. Hrabowski III, "would unreasonably duplicate existing programs" at two public campuses, particularly Morgan State University, a historically black college.

"By placing a duplicative program in the same geographic area as an historically black college or university, the state might appear to be fostering a segregated system of higher education that may discourage the further integration of Morgan State University," Dr. Aery's letter said.

Dr. Hrabowski disagreed with that assessment, but he acknowledged that the state has to be "careful" in awarding new programs because of the 1992 Supreme Court decision.

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