Trial begins in federal lawsuit alleging continued segregation at Md. universities

Plaintiffs ask state to pay for improvements at historically black universities

January 03, 2012|By Childs Walker, The Baltimore Sun

Alumni and students from Maryland's four historically black universities took their long-held view that the state perpetuates racial segregation to court Tuesday, arguing that their institutions are underfunded.

The federal lawsuit calls on the state to pay for improvements at the four schools — Morgan State, Coppin State, Bowie State and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore — that would make them more competitive with traditionally white peers. It also calls for the dismantling of programs at traditionally white schools that "unnecessarily" duplicate programs at the historically black universities.

The case has drawn national attention from legal scholars and advocates for historically black institutions, who are intrigued by its implications for federal enforcement of laws aimed at ensuring equality in higher education. For Maryland, it revives decades-old questions of whether the state has done enough to support and protect its historically black institutions.

"Maryland has not eradicated the vestiges of segregation," Michael D. Jones, a Washington attorney who represents the plaintiffs, a coalition of students and alumni from the state's historically black universities, said during opening statements Tuesday.

Baltimore attorney Craig A. Thompson, arguing for the state, countered that historically black universities have fared well in recent budgets and that minority students have far more opportunities at all of Maryland's public universities than they did even a few decades ago.

"The question is: Are there current state policies and practices, traceable to the segregation era, that are continuing to foster segregation in our institutions of public higher education?" Thompson said. "And the answer is no."

The suit reached trial this week in Baltimore's U.S. District Court more than five years after it was filed.

The case went to trial only after several attempts at mediation failed last year. The proceedings are expected to last about five weeks and to bring many of the state's higher education leaders to the witness stand. U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Blake will rule on the case from the bench.

The plaintiffs argue that Maryland has not met its obligations under United States v. Fordice, a 1992 case in which the Supreme Court ordered states to eliminate all practices and policies that trace back to the segregation era and that continue to foster inequalities.

In his opening remarks Tuesday, Jones said the state has failed in several key areas. It's not enough, he said, for Maryland to fund historically black universities more equally in 2012. Jones said the universities need far greater infusions of money to make up for the historical disparities that left them with subpar library and lab facilities. He said historically black universities also need more money because they are charged with providing access and opportunities for low-income families.

Jones said an expert who will testify for the plaintiffs estimates that between 1990 and 2009, historically black universities should have received an additional $644 million in state appropriations. He said the universities should have received another $450 million to help with low-income students.

Jones walked through a history of state reports on historically black schools, noting that time and time again, officials called for substantial funding increases. He said those reports belie the state's legal argument that its spending policies bear no traces of segregation.

Jones said he was struck by "the divergence between Maryland's official reports and Maryland's litigation position."

He said his case will also target Maryland's decisions on program duplication, a longtime source of friction between historically black institutions and their traditionally white peers. The argument is that historically black schools can never gain equal footing if their most popular and distinctive programs are replicated elsewhere.

Jones specifically questioned the state's 2005 decision to allow a joint master's program in business administration at the University of Baltimore and Towson University, in direct competition with Morgan's MBA program. Jones said the state has "misinterpreted" the guidelines laid out in the Fordice case by forcing historically black institutions to prove that they would be damaged by duplicate programs. He called that requirement an "almost insurmountable burden."

Thompson cast the case in a wholly different light, arguing that students of all colors are given far more choices today than they were in the segregation era. He said the plaintiffs' case is more focused on protecting universities than on the best interests of students and thus, out of step with the spirit of the Fordice decision.

"Mr. Jones will be talking a lot about institutions," he said. "I'll be talking about student choice."

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