Md. lauds college visits

U.S. inspections could signal ruling on desegregation plan

July 28, 2008|By Gadi Dechter | Gadi Dechter,Sun Reporter

Federal civil rights officials inspected several Baltimore-area colleges last week, the first clear indication in two years that the U.S. Education Department's Office for Civil Rights might be approaching a decision on whether Maryland has satisfied its obligations under a five-year desegregation plan that ended in 2005.

Maryland is one of only seven states that have not yet fulfilled federal goals of eliminating the vestiges of separate public college systems for black and white students. The 2000-2005 federal desegregation plan for Maryland was the latest in a string of similar plans for the state stretching back to the 1960s.

"We're pleased that they're actually here, moving the matter forward," said Kevin O'Keefe, chairman of the Maryland Higher Education Commission. "Our goal is to get this issue resolved one way or another."

Last week, civil rights officials, accompanied by commission staff, toured facilities at Morgan State University, the University of Baltimore and Coppin State University. Tours of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and Towson University are scheduled for the first week in August.

Higher Education Secretary James E. Lyons Sr. said he has been told that officials from the Office for Civil Rights will eventually visit all the state's colleges.

Since June 2006, Maryland has been waiting for a response from federal officials to the state's contention that it has satisfied its commitments under the desegregation plan, including investing nearly more than $55 million in "enhancement" funds to Maryland's four historically black campuses. The state has asked for formal certification that Maryland is in compliance with federal civil rights laws but has had virtually no communication from the Office of Civil Rights since 2006, commission officials said.

Jim Bradshaw, an Education Department spokesman, said that the Office for Civil Rights "will not discuss details relative to processing of specific cases, especially since this case is still open."

The lack of communication has been a source of frustration for the state's higher education officials. "I do hope that when the campus visits have been completed we will hear something official," Lyons said. "It is very important that Maryland learns where we stand."

If the state is not in compliance, he said, "we need to know it."

The goal of the desegregation plan was to make the state's black colleges "comparable and competitive" with majority-white schools in "all facets of their operations and programs," according to the agreement. The plan's emphasis was not only on increased financial investment in historically underfunded black campuses but also on improving the academic quality of those schools.

In January, The Sun reported that although the state has allocated about $400 million to its black campuses since 2001 - an unprecedented investment - those schools have experienced significant recent declines in academic performance.

Generally, the four black colleges continue to occupy a distinct second tier in Maryland's higher education system, the newspaper's analysis showed. Graduation rates at Maryland's black colleges are about half those at the state's majority white schools, and average SAT scores of African-American students at black campuses are about 300 points lower, on average, than the scores of black students who attend traditionally white schools.

State education officials have said it is too soon to expect recent investments to show up in academic statistics, and they argue that the mission of black colleges to open the doors of higher education to disadvantaged students should be taken into consideration when comparing them with majority-white schools.

Complicating the Office for Civil Rights' current evaluation is a lawsuit filed in federal court by a coalition of current and former students at Maryland's black colleges. The Coalition for Equity and Excellence in Maryland Higher Education is asking the courts to declare Maryland in violation of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and require that the state enhance its funding of historically black schools.

The lawsuit also asks the court to order Maryland to "dismantle" a Master's of Business Administration program offered jointly by Towson University and the University of Baltimore. The expansion of UB's existing MBA program to Towson was approved by the Maryland Higher Education Commission in 2005 over the objection of Morgan State University, which argued that allowing Towson to duplicate a degree already offered at Morgan violated the desegregation agreement.

The state had agreed not to establish academic programs at historically white schools that were "unnecessarily duplicative" of those at historically black colleges. The agreement sought to comply with a Supreme Court ruling that said such duplication perpetuates racial segregation.

In the past three legislative sessions, Morgan supporters in the General Assembly have tried without success to pass legislation that would allow a judge to overrule the state's approval of Towson's MBA program.

In a 2005 letter to O'Keefe, Wendella P. Fox, director of the Philadelphia civil rights office overseeing Maryland, expressed concern about the MBA approval at Towson and indicated that it could figure into her office's conclusion about whether Maryland has satisfied its commitments under the desegregation plan.

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