Call for Separation of Maryland HBCUs From State System Could Be Endorsement of Inequity

Maryland State Delegate Julian Ivey has revealed plans to author a bill that would remove three of Maryland’s four historically black colleges from the state’s system of higher education. Bowie State University, Coppin State University, and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, according to Ivey, should join state-affiliated Morgan State University in having the political and cultural freedom to determine their fates with state appropriations coming to each school.

From the DCist:

Ivey told DCist/WAMU Tuesday the impetus behind his proposal is the lack of racial diversity on USM’s Board of Regents, which he believes hinders its ability to support and provide oversight to the HBCUs.

“That does inherently make it more difficult for the institutions themselves to adequately lobby for the funds that they need,” Ivey said.

There’s no reason to doubt that Ivey, a Prince George’s County representative and native who graduated from the state’s flagship University of Maryland - College Park, has the best of intentions for this proposal. On the surface, it would appear that the HBCU anchor in his district, Bowie State University, would benefit significantly from a standalone board with the will to create programs, advocate for advanced funding, and to spur initiatives that will help it to grow its already strong profile within the state and region.

But we should be cautious about the long term impact of such plans, and how they could inadvertently hurt Maryland’s Black colleges more than they’ve already been damaged over generations of illegal program duplication and underfunding.

Many HBCU alumni and students in Maryland and around the country would assume that public HBCUs operating outside of any state governing body would be a good thing. But details such as who would have appointing authority over each school’s board, what appropriation formulas would look like for the seceding schools, and academic program approval systems would be critical factors in whether such a proposal should earn the support of the HBCU community.

A proposal like this made at a time like this could give Maryland Governor Larry Hogan and members of the state legislature cover to grant such a wish and to abandon the pursuit of a $580 million settlement for the decades-long federal lawsuit against the state for maltreatment of the HBCUs just months after a settlement that was negotiated and passed nearly unanimously by both Maryland’s House and Senate in March, was vetoed by Hogan in May.

Disparities between Maryland’s historically Black and predominantly white colleges were the heart of the landmark lawsuit, and at the core of the court’s decision favoring restitution for the HBCUs. Support, not governance, is the issue for Maryland, and for many other states throughout the south that continue to place Black colleges at competitive disadvantages in attracting students and graduating them.

Former Morgan State Faculty Senate President Alvin Thornton told the DCist that independence gives HBCUs the autonomy to thrive and excel in the spirit of the missions.

“What Morgan (State University) was saying, in 1974, was that the current structure is not producing equality and justice for Black students in higher education,” Thornton said. “Therefore, (the university) would have a system where it — being historically Black — would be able to do that.”

Morgan State has operated independently since 1975 as has grown into one of the nation’s premier HBCUs. MSU’s autonomy has helped it to grow as a doctoral research institution with national prominence in engineering, architecture, education, and the natural sciences.

But with all of its gains, Maryland’s flagship historically Black institution still faces its share of problems inflicted by a lack of state investment. Over the last decade, it has lagged in comparison to other similar historically Black flagships such as Florida A&M University, North Carolina A&T State University, and Prairie View A&M University in enrollment growth — all of which operate under antagonistic system oversight boards.

Courtesy: National Center for Education Statistics

MSU has been outpaced by nearby, predominantly white Towson University as a growing destination for African American students, increasing its total percentage from 14% in 2012 to 21% in 2018, while Morgan’s Black student population fell from 84% to 78% over the same period — all while Morgan State President David Kwabena Wilson has touted Morgan as “more than just an HBCU.

Courtesy: National Center for Education Statistics

Just four years ago, Black lawmakers forced legislation to prohibit Morgan State from being merged with another school or being absorbed back into the USM System by way of mergers or consolidations ordered by a federal court to settle the lawsuit.

(Former) Baltimore Sen. Joan Carter Conway, a Democrat, is sponsoring a bill in Annapolis that would prohibit the historically black Morgan State from being included in the university system.

Conway said in an interview that there’s not an active plan to merge the two institutions; but that if the federal judge presiding over the case should rule in favor of the proposal – put forward by a group supporting the state’s historically black institutions, or HBIs – Morgan should maintain its independence.

Conway doesn’t feel Morgan would benefit from joining the USM. “It’s just a precaution,” she said. “If the merger actually happens we want to make sure it [Morgan] remains independent.”

Independence from the state system hasn’t preserved Morgan from enrollment stagnation, disillusioned leadership, or threats against that independence real and perceived — and it wouldn’t protect the state’s other Black colleges either.

Ivey should be lauded for seeking solutions to improve Maryland’s HBCUs. Still, the best solution is one that makes the Black institutions competitive with all peers in the state regardless of size, geography, or mission. Anything else, no matter how well-intentioned it may be, is a fix that the HBCU plaintiffs didn’t ask for, and a resolution that may let the state off the hook for its unfair treatment of the institutions.