If not now, when? [Editorial]

Our view: Morgan University and Towson U shouldn't have to wait until a long-running lawsuit is resolved to build better ties

May 27, 2014

It's dismaying that the Morgan State University board appears to have summarily dismissed a proposed collaboration with Towson University on new joint degree programs for students of landscape architecture, city and regional planning and construction management. Maryland needs more qualified workers in such fields, and on the face of it a partnership between Morgan and Towson to provide them would seem to make a lot of sense.

Yet there's little chance of that happening before the long-running court dispute between a coalition of students and alumni at the state's four historically black colleges and universities and the Maryland Higher Education Commission is resolved. The plaintiffs allege that the state historically had starved the HBCUs of funding and undermined their ability to attract a more diverse student population by creating duplicates of their most popular programs at its traditionally white institutions.

Last year, U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Blake dismissed the claim that Maryland currently under-funds its HBCUs but ruled in favor of the plaintiffs on the issue of duplicate programs. On average, Maryland's traditionally white institutions offer dozens of high-demand, unique programs compared to the relative handful available at historically black schools.

Judge Blake ruled that such duplication was an unlawful continuation of the discriminatory policies adopted during the era of segregation and ordered the state to reduce the disparity between HBCUs and traditionally white schools in the number of such courses offered. But rather than spell out exactly how that should occur, the court encouraged the parties to enter into mediation to resolve their differences.

Morgan's board is reluctant to consider a partnership with Towson while those talks are in progress. For one thing, there's no way for the school to know what the context of such a collaboration would look like until some broader agreement on program duplication and the disparity in high-demand unique programs is reached. For another, Morgan's board evidently is wary of cutting a separate deal with one of the state's traditionally white institutions in a way that might be seen as undermining the negotiating position of the other HBCUs in the plaintiffs' coalition.

But all the legal maneuvering has tended to obscure what's really important here, and that is creating a system of public colleges and universities that best serves students' needs and provides a well-trained workforce that contributes to the state's economy. Morgan and the other HBCUs must be part of that solution because the state cannot afford to allow them to remain under-utilized resources. The joint program here may not mean much in terms of resolving the issues at hand in the lawsuit, but it would, at least in a moderate way, have provided more reasons for students of all races to study at Morgan, and that's a step in the right direction.

But the defensiveness and distrust with which the proposal has been greeted by members of Morgan's board suggests just how improbable it is that mediation will result in a workable solution. More likely, the parties in the lawsuit will fail to reach an accommodation, and the court will be forced to order its own remedy — an event that would, no doubt, just lead to more years of appeals. Meanwhile, no progress on the avowed goals of the litigation will be made, and the students of the state will suffer from the lack of opportunities that a more cooperative relationship between schools like Morgan and Towson could provide.

No one is disputing the necessity of dismantling the racially discriminatory policies created during the era of segregation. But neither can the state afford to remain perpetually captive to its past. If no one now feels willing or able to make even the smallest commitment to a more open system of higher education that offers equal access to students of all races, when will they ever? The law is a cumbersome instrument for settling the kinds of disputes that have led to the current impasse, and we can only hope that educational leaders on both sides will find the courage to step up and break it.

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