Suit seeks to toss out joint program at UB, Towson

State has failed to desegregate higher education, group says

October 14, 2006|By Gadi Dechter | Gadi Dechter,Sun reporter

Arguing that Maryland has failed to desegregate its colleges and universities, an advocacy group with ties to Morgan State University filed a lawsuit yesterday demanding the dismantling of several new academic programs at traditionally white campuses, including a joint MBA program at Towson University and the University of Baltimore.

The Coalition for Equity and Excellence in Maryland Higher Education is requesting a court order that will mandate parity in "all facets of ... operations and programs" between the state's four historically black campuses and their traditionally white counterparts.

"Maryland has an obligation to desegregate its higher education, and it made an agreement to do so ... and it did not live up to that agreement," said Kenneth Lavon Johnson, a retired Baltimore Circuit Court judge and veteran civil rights lawyer, who is the coalition's lead attorney.

The lawsuit comes as the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights in Philadelphia is assessing progress made by Maryland during a five-year desegregation partnership that ended in December.

Under the partnership, the state agreed not to establish academic programs at historically white schools that were "unnecessarily duplicative" of those at historically black colleges. That was to comply with a landmark 1992 Supreme Court ruling that said such duplication perpetuates segregation.

Morgan State President Earl S. Richardson has been a vigilant watchdog of duplication, particularly of programs already offered at his historically black campus in Northeast Baltimore.

In recent years, Richardson has successfully blocked the establishment of several new programs at area universities, notably an electrical engineering major at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

But Richardson lost his fight last year to block the joint Master's of Business Administration program at Towson and the University of Baltimore.

Members of the coalition that filed yesterday's suit mentioned that defeat as a major impetus for their legal challenge.

The complaint asks the court to strip Towson of its designation as the "state's metropolitan university," which the coalition says threatens Morgan's identity as "the state's public urban university."

Despite such detailed attention to Morgan's grievances, a university spokesman said Wednesday that Richardson was unaware of the lawsuit. "As far as I know, Dr. Richardson hasn't read it, doesn't have any close knowledge of it and can't make a comment," Jarrett Carter said.

Formed this year, the coalition includes many Morgan alumni. Its president is David Burton, a 1967 Morgan graduate and the founder of the National Minority Manufacturing Institute, an association of minority-owned businesses. The coalition's vice chairwoman, Marsha Evans Holmes, sits on the Morgan State University Foundation's executive committee.

Also among the coalition's members are Marvin "Doc" Cheatham, president of the Baltimore branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and Nolan V. Rollins, an official with the Greater Baltimore Urban League.

Calvin W. Burnett, the state secretary of higher education, said yesterday that Maryland had made a good-faith effort to fulfill its federal civil rights obligations.

"One thing that's great about this country is you can file a suit against a ham sandwich, but you've got to go into court and prove it doesn't taste right," Burnett said. "If this goes into court, I am confident ... that we will be able to defend ourselves."

Burnett, a former president of the historically black Coppin State University in Baltimore, said he hoped the Maryland Higher Education Commission would not be inhibited from approving additional educational programs at traditionally white campuses.

The lawsuit asks the court to rescind the University of Baltimore's approval to start admitting freshmen and sophomores next year, apparently because of the competition that could create for Morgan and Coppin.

Towson University officials declined to comment yesterday because they had not reviewed the complaint, but the University of Baltimore defended its MBA program with Towson and its new role in admitting freshmen. "We're confident both of those programs meet all legal standards or any scrutiny," said UB spokesman Peter Toran.

gadi.dechter@baltsun.com

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