Group claims discrimination vs. Maryland's black colleges

Arguments heard on whether federal lawsuit can go forward

  • Lindsay Michocki is a senior at C. Milton Wright High School and received a $12,000 four-year scholarship from the state as part of the Distinguished Scholars program only to have it taken away after budget cuts.
Lindsay Michocki is a senior at C. Milton Wright High School… (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun )
May 11, 2011|By Tricia Bishop, The Baltimore Sun

Maryland's four historically black colleges and universities are more segregated today than in decades past because of discriminatory practices and policies maintained by the state's Higher Education Commission, lawyers told a federal court judge Wednesday.

"The result is [that the four colleges] fall farther and farther behind," said John Greenbaum, a civil rights attorney representing an advocacy group that sued the commission.

The lawsuit, originally filed in 2006 and since amended four times, contends that the state underfunds black schools, particularly in capital improvement projects, and allows unnecessary duplication of programs by surrounding institutions.

But attorneys for the commission say there's no proof that disparities, if any, are intentional or even the result of policies that have roots in segregation.

"Because they cannot meet that burden [after] lengthy years of litigation, they fail," said Assistant Attorney General Campbell Killifer, who represents the Maryland Higher Education Commission. He concluded that U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Blake should therefore "dismiss the case entirely."

The comments were made during 21/2 hours of arguments Wednesday afternoon on state motions requesting immediate judgment in the case, claiming the suit doesn't have the merit to go forward.

About 50 spectators, most with ties to the state's historically black institutions — Morgan State University, Coppin State University, Bowie State University and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore — filled the courtroom, watching the proceeding unfold.

Parity among higher-education institutions has been an issue in the state and country for centuries, and the lawsuit recounts 200 years of history, going back to 1807 when Maryland established then white-only University of Maryland at Baltimore.

While much has changed since then, the plaintiffs say Maryland still has a long way to go in leveling the playing field.

"In essence, it's always a rich-get-richer" situation even when funding allotments are equal, said attorney Karen Walker, who works with Greenbaum. Black schools, she said, need more help to catch up.

Her clients contend that the state is not keeping equity promises it made in 2000 to the Office for Civil Rights within the U.S. Department of Education and that current practices are discriminatory.

They point to a joint master's program in business administration that was implemented at Towson University and the University of Baltimore in 2005, in direct competition with Morgan State; capital enhancement projects that take two and three times as long to fund at historically black institutions compared with other facilities; and poor retention and graduation rates at historically black institutions.

The education commission says it completed the improvement plan agreement with the Office of Civil Rights in 2005, however, and hasn't heard a word since then, leading it to interpret that its efforts were satisfactory.

The presumption should then be, according to Killifer, that the state does not have any vestiges left of segregation policies. Disparities and gaps in graduation rates and other areas are due to other factors, he said.

In the past, Maryland operated a segregated program "that was wrong, that was morally reprehensible and that was unconstitutional," Killifer conceded. He said a "dramatic change" has occurred since then.

"Maryland is not Mississippi and Maryland is not Alabama last century," Killifer said. "If the plaintiffs believe that, they're drinking some kind of Kool-Aid."

But Greenbaum said Alabama enriched white schools adjacent to historically black institutions in the 1960s and '70s as a form of discrimination, "exactly what happened here."

"The [historically black universities] cannot desegregate" because they aren't allowed unique programs or full funding, Greenbaum said. "Over the last several decades, they've actually become more segregated."

Blake said she will rule soon on whether the case, scheduled for a June bench trial, can go forward.

tricia.bishop@baltsun.com

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