HBCU Advocates Wage Campaign To End Maryland Lawsuit

Advocates for four historically black colleges and universities in Maryland are waging a public campaign to draw attention to a 13-year-old lawsuit over inequitable funding and to call for a resolution of a case that House Speaker Adrienne Jones (D) calls a “stain on the national reputation of Maryland’s higher education system.”

The effort arrives at a critical time for the roughly 100 colleges and universities nationwide designated as historically black institutions. Many are contending with slowing enrollment, paltry state investment and dwindling federal support. While these economic head winds are broadly affecting higher education, they are endangering historically black schools — widely known as HBCUs — that already have limited resources because of the legacy of discrimination.

States, including Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi, have been forced to reckon with that legacy through the courts. But the history of neglect still places historically black schools at a disadvantage not easily remedied, some lawmakers and advocates said.

“It’s bigger than Maryland, in my opinion,” said Del. Darryl Barnes (D-Prince George’s), president of the Legislative Black Caucus of Maryland. “It’s a national issue, and we’re trying to bring national attention to it.”

The caucus is working with graduates of Maryland’s historically black institutions on a campaign, and alumni have created a video detailing the history of the case.

That campaign culminated Wednesday when, just steps away from the Thurgood Marshall memorial in Annapolis, hundreds of college students, alumni and members of the Legislative Black Caucus rallied to demand that Gov. Larry Hogan (R) settle the lawsuit for no less than $577 million.

“We are here to fight for funds, we’re here for equal facilities, we’re here to fight for our future and what is long overdue,” Fedelis Tucker, 26, a junior studying communications at Bowie State University, yelled from a platform.

Negotiations between the state and the Coalition for Equity and Excellence in Maryland Higher Education are at an impasse after several failed rounds of court-ordered mediation.

The coalition, composed of graduates from Maryland’s historically black institutions, proposed a $577 million settlement in September. An attorney for Hogan countered with what he described as a final offer of $200 million, which would be divided over 10 years among Morgan State University, Coppin State University, Bowie State University and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore.

Barnes said it was “shameful” that Hogan sent a letter saying “take this $200 million or leave it” when there should have been discussion about a path forward. He and other lawmakers said the governor’s proposal is not enough to remedy decades of disparities allowed by the state.

Hogan, like his predecessors, has acknowledged Maryland’s troubled history of segregation in higher education but insists that the state has made significant strides to remedy the problem.

A Hogan spokeswoman said Wednesday that Hogan “dramatically increased” the offer made by former governor Martin O’Malley (D), whose final offer was $40 million. “Gov. Hogan has shown real leadership on this issue where others have repeatedly failed over the years,” Shareese Churchill said.

In a letter to Jones (Baltimore County), Hogan said he must protect the state’s finances as Maryland faces a $5 billion cash shortfall between fiscal 2021 and 2024.

“As we approach the upcoming budget process,” he told Jones, “it is certainly within the purview of you and your colleagues to attempt to find ways to fund a settlement at the levels you are seeking.”

Maryland is being asked to atone for policies that the coalition says have undermined the state’s historically black institutions. Years of allowing other state colleges to duplicate programs that once attracted a diverse student body to the four schools has impeded enrollment. Advocates say that although state spending has increased, establishing parity within the public university system requires greater investment.

“Ultimately, the question is whether you have the number and diversity of programs and services at our historically black colleges as you have at the majority institutions. And of course you don’t,” said Earl S. Richardson, a former president of Morgan State and a member of the coalition. “The disparity in the programming and infrastructure gives historically white institutions a great advantage over our black schools.”

In a letter Jones sent Hogan in October, she said the proposed $577 million settlement could be used to develop new academic programs, hire faculty and expand the reach of state scholarships.

“We cannot continue to allow this lawsuit to languish, or risk the potential that a higher federal court will damage or eliminate the important standards we have in place,” Jones wrote.

Maryland appealed a 2017 court order to establish a set of unique programs at each school and provide additional funding for marketing and scholarships. The case remains in the hands of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, which has yet to rule. If the state wins its appeal, the alumni coalition could petition the Supreme Court to take up the case.

Del. Charles E. Sydnor III (D-Baltimore County) said he will work on legislation to settle the lawsuit for at least $577 million if a resolution is not reached by the time the General Assembly convenes in January.

Sydnor, who organized Wednesday’s rally, said the state “has defaulted on the promissory note” owed to the historically black universities.

“We call on Governor Hogan to stop the foot dragging and delay,” he said as one attendee yelled, “Pay up.”

While historically black colleges and universities fight for greater state investment, they are grappling with the loss of federal money. Congress did not reauthorize $255 million in mandatory funding for minority-serving colleges in September, leaving Maryland’s four historically black institutions without more than $4 million in federal assistance.

Money from the current appropriation will carry over into next year, but the uncertainty around future funding is already affecting local schools.

Bowie State President Aminta H. Breaux said the university is considering cutting some programs and trying to find a way to keep staff whose salaries are supported by federal funding. The school is hoping to shift other federal funding to offset the loss of money earmarked for minority-serving schools.

“What we’re doing is a real juggling act,” Breaux said. “Meanwhile, I spend a great deal of time trying to garner private support that we desperately need, and many of our HBCUs need, because we have such a low endowment.”

Historically black institutions have not benefited from the level of private philanthropy that bolsters the endowments of majority-white institutions. Bowie State has an $8 million endowment to support academic programs and financial aid for more than 6,100 students. By comparison, the University of Baltimore, with about 4,400 students, has an endowment of about $50 million.

With only a third of Bowie State’s $146 million budget derived from state appropriations, all sources of revenue are vital to the university’s sustainability, Breaux said. She said Maryland has been generous with its support, but for Bowie State and other historically black institutions to be competitive, more resources must be brought to bear.

“We need the additional funds to recruit more faculty to scale up. We need to continue to keep pace with developing our curriculum, developing new programs,” Breaux said. Proceeds from the settlement of the coalition’s lawsuit “would be a huge added value” to those efforts.

Barnes, president of the Legislative Black Caucus of Maryland, said he is trying to garner support from the state Democratic Caucus, hoping that a broader coalition will stand with the black caucus in its fight.

“This doesn’t just affect the African American community, but the state of Maryland with its economy, with creating jobs,” he said. “It has a long lingering effect on where we are as a state and where we are moving to.”