An HBCU President Desperately Tried to Derail the Maryland HBCU Lawsuit. Fortunately, He Failed.

Maryland Governor Larry Hogan will travel to Bowie State University tomorrow to join presidents from the state’s four historically Black institutions to sign into law a 10-year, $577 million legislative settlement of a landmark federal lawsuit which proved the state criminally responsible for creating a racially segregated system of public higher education. 

Leaders from the legislature, BSU, Coppin State University, Morgan State University, and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore will be on hand for the historic bill signing, which will end the lawsuit that slogged through trial and mediation for the better part of 15 years, attempting to dismantle the state’s willful and rampant creation of hundreds of unique programs at predominantly white institutions while ignoring the same at Black universities, and for duplicating majors at PWIs which had previously been established at HBCUs. 

The bill will annually grant each HBCU millions of dollars in addition to annual appropriations, which will allow the Black colleges to create new and exclusive programming that will match what local and national industries and employers are seeking in college graduates, and will allow for stronger partnerships between companies and governments in research and development. 

HBCUs across the state will hire more faculty, have more funds for scholarships and marketing, and will have a new foundation for increased public investment at the turn of the next decade. Hundreds of HBCU alumni signed on as plaintiffs, lawyers, experts, and promoters of a case seeking equity and excellence for Maryland higher education. They all have waited for nearly a generation for this outcome. They deserve to be recognized. 

David Burton graduated from Morgan State in 1967 and was among the first plaintiffs to seek legal remedy for inequalities he experienced nearly 40 years prior to his filing the lawsuit. He was a witness, and a point of contact for members of the HBCU alumni associations who wrote letters, rallied, marched, and gave testimony on behalf of the Black colleges. 

Last week, when it became apparent that the drawn-out conclusion to the legal saga was in sight, he said this about its outcome. 

“As with most civil rights legislation, I expected the state to prolong this as long as they could,” said Burton, president of Morgan State University’s class of 1967. “I can’t say I expected it to take this long.”

Chinedu Nwokeafor was a familiar face at many of those rallies, which featured busloads of students from every campus unloading protestors onto the plazas facing the Garmatz Federal courthouse during the trial, and Lawyers’ Mall adjacent to the state capitol building in Annapolis. 

“We work very, very hard at our institutions to get an education and we believe that we should get the quality educations, with the quality programs and the quality funding,” he said in a 2017 interview with Baltimore CBS affiliate WJZ. 

Morgan State President Emeritus and Maryland State College alumnus (now UMES) Earl S. Richardson was an expert witness for the case, working with lead attorney Michael Jones, a Dillard University graduate and current chair of his alma mater’s board of trustees

Lawmakers like Sen. Charles Sydnor and former Sen. Joan Carter Conway fought for legislation to settle the legal logjam for years, and current Maryland House Speaker Adrienne Jones delivered a legislative vote that was nearly unanimous in both houses not once, but twice when interrupted by the global coronavirus pandemic last spring. 

There are so many other men and women who played an instrumental role in helping to lead this landmark case to a favorable outcome, even when conditions appeared to be unfavorable towards their cause at every turn of appeals and failed negotiations.

Sometimes, the opposition to their success came from within the HBCU community. Three of Maryland’s four HBCU presidents retired or resigned from their posts in the midst of the lawsuit and the negotiations that followed the 2013 verdict, creating some difficulty in aligning the campuses with the plaintiffs’ objectives. 

The one president who stayed, Morgan State’s David Wilson, was a public and ardent opponent of the lawsuit from the beginning. 

To the casual observer, Wilson frequently offered public support for the lawsuit reaching a resolution. But with a closer look, it becomes clear that his actions over years were aimed at sabotaging the lawsuit and forcing disruption of its possible outcomes.

In 2013, former Morgan State University Board of Regents Chair Dallas Evans sent a confidential memo to his fellow board members. He warned that Wilson, just three years removed from his appointment as president, was significantly compromising the institution through a lack of communication and self-serving promotion, and messaging against the court case.

Mr. Wilson’s role in a lawsuit against the state by a coalition of students and alumni of Maryland’s historically black colleges is another reason for Mr. Evans’s dissatisfaction, he writes. 

The board meant to adopt a neutral position on the litigation, Mr. Evans writes, so as not to offend state officials or supporters of the lawsuit. But Mr. Wilson “insisted on aligning himself with the state,” Mr. Evans charges, against the advice of the board.

Evans was ousted as board chair, Wilson was retained as president. A year later, the president was again publicly questioned by board members regarding his support of the lawsuit. This time, Wilson was publicly reprimanded for encouraging program development between Morgan and Towson University, a predominantly white institution at the center of the federal lawsuit for duplicating Morgan degree programs

The plan, which is in the early stages, emerged just months after a judge ordered the state and the state's four historically black colleges, including Morgan, into mediation to settle alleged disparities in funding and duplication of programs at historically black institutions by other state colleges and universities.

Kweisi Mfume, the chairman of the Morgan Board of Regents, said he is not interested in pursuing joint programs.

"We have no desire at all, at this particular time, this board, to be pursuing any programs with Towson," said Mfume, who added he had not seen the proposals and is seeking more information. "I can tell you the board is not interested in any shared programs right now. We are, as a university, against program duplication."

Over the years and through a slate of interviews and op-eds, Wilson continued to send the implied message that Morgan was not in need of support; that its excellence was and would always be in place whether students and graduates won the lawsuit or not. 

Investing in Morgan's research benefits Maryland - June 23, 2014

Culture of innovation takes root at Morgan - Nov. 10, 2015

Making a long-term commitment to Morgan - May 9, 2015

Educating Black engineers in Baltimore - Aug. 29, 2016

Despite obstacles, Morgan State soars - Jan. 14, 2018

More than 'just an HBCU': How Morgan State is transforming its campus and its academics - Oct. 26, 2018

HBCU ‘attributes’ encourage high achievement - Jun. 5, 2019 

Morgan president talks how to be a ‘woke’ president - Jun. 30, 2020

No Black institutions are among the top research universities; here’s why that must change - Nov. 5, 2020

Attorneys for the state of Maryland used Wilson’s talking points as justification for arguments that the state had finally learned its lesson and had begun the work of building up HBCU facilities. 

They argued against a verdict and award to grant billions to the Black colleges because, if David Wilson was to be believed, HBCUs in Maryland were doing great in spite of the state’s racist and criminal behaviors.

Opponents of the lawsuit did the same. Take Towson University economics professor Thomas Maronick’s Jan. 2018 letter to the editor published by the Baltimore Sun

It’s the start of a new legislative session and, with it, Morgan State University President David Wilson’s claim in “Despite obstacles, Morgan State University soars” (Jan. 14) that “despite inadequate investments, Morgan has historically produced top-ranked programs and graduates.” Without questioning Morgan’s programs or graduates, the issue of Morgan’s underfunding compared to other state universities is open to scrutiny.

According to Morgan’s “2015 Facility Planning Master Plan,” “...over the last 10 years, projects have been completed and/or initiated totally nearly $500 million.” Additionally, the document states that “…the University’s FY 2015 five-year request includes funding to initiate projects totally nearly $600 million.” For those counting, that’s $1.1 billion over 15 years. In terms of specifics, by comparison, Towson has had one new academic building since 1974 and just broke ground on its second. As a further contrast, while Morgan last year opened its second new School of Business building since 1990, Towson’s School of Business is in iconic Stephens Hall, the first building on the Towson campus. Thus, the question is which university is underfunded, Towson or Morgan?

And then there were Wilson’s efforts to distract or to outright prohibit students from attending public demonstrations in support of the lawsuit. 

Ironically enough, Wilson will stand to be the biggest benefactor of tomorrow’s signing. Besides standing shoulder to shoulder with the governor who vetoed the original settlement last year, and who offered a paltry $100 million settlement three years ago, Morgan will receive the highest annual payment as a result. 

This means that the board will keep him on just long enough for him to get the credit on all of the new programs, endowed scholarship funds, and other additions to firmly cement his place as Morgan’s second-greatest president behind Richardson. 

No matter how hard he tried to stop it, Wilson will brag about and personalize its outcomes. He’ll make people think that he is a long-suffering general in the fight for HBCUs and helped to deliver Morgan to the promised land by avoiding lawsuit talk while keeping students and alumni informed on the status of the case and what a settlement could mean for the universities. 

But there’s a clear way to tell the difference between champions and chumps, and the students and alumni who delivered this moment deserve way more than confusion about where they, or he, stands at the beginning of a new era for all HBCUs nationwide.