By Stacy M. Brown, NNPA Newswire Correspondent
A coalition of HBCU students, alumni and others from Maryland are planning to pack the Fourth District Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia next month for oral arguments in a decades-old lawsuit over inequality in public higher education.
“We are reaching out and calling on at least 200 HBCU supporters to join us in Richmond on Dec. 11,” said HBCU Matters Chairman, Marvin “Doc” Cheatham.
The coalition has chartered buses to leave from each of the four HBCU campuses in Maryland on the morning of the arguments.
“The students are very actively advocating on behalf of all four of the HBCUs in Maryland. Morgan State has held two rallies thus far and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore had their Rally Saturday the 17th,” said Zattura Sims-El, one of many advocates for HBCUs in Maryland.
“Bowie and Coppin are currently planning rallies for each campus. The students from all four universities are communicating with each other for one purpose and that is the have Gov. Hogan withdraw the appeal, he and only he has the power and authority to do so,” Sims-El said.
A coalition of alumni from Maryland’s four HBCUs have been involved in a lawsuit since 2006 with the state.
Coalition members argue that Maryland has underfunded Morgan State University, Coppin State University, Bowie State University and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, and allowed other state schools to duplicate their programs, placing pressure on enrollment.
Published reports suggest that over the years, the coalition has called for increased funding and merging the University of Baltimore with Morgan State, the state’s largest public historically black school, to achieve parity.
A year ago, a federal judge asked the state to remedy the lack of investment in Maryland’s HBCUs, ordering the state to establish a set of new, unique and high-demand programs at each historically black institution, the judge declared.
Despite that court order, settlement talks have stalled, and Maryland hasn’t accepted the court-ordered remedies for HBCUs.
“While the Maryland HBCU case is still in mediation, due to the State’s refusal to accept the judge’s ruling, the Maryland HBCU Matters Coalition is hard at work,” Cheatham said.
In 2013, Judge Catherine Blake, U.S. District Court of Maryland, found the state in violation of 14th Amendment rights of its HBCU students and alumni.
Her ruling said Maryland continues to operate vestiges of a de jure system of segregation, specifically by continuing a longstanding practice of duplicating academic programs offered at HBCU’s, rather than investing in making the HBCU programs attractive to a diverse range of students.
By June 2017, after initial failed mediation between HBCU advocates and the state of Maryland, Blake ordered parties back into court.
In November of 2017, Blake reportedly issued an order providing for an administrator known as a special master to coordinate a comprehensive plan ensuring Maryland’s HBCU’s would be home to high quality academic programs.
“The Plan should propose a set of new unique and/or high demand programs at each HBI, taking into account each HBI’s areas of strength, physical building capacity and the programmatic niches suggested by the plaintiff’s experts,” Blake wrote in the November 2017 ruling.
According to The Afro, which has covered the story more extensively than any other media outlet, in December 2017, state Attorney General Brian Frosh gave notice that the state would appeal Blake’s ruling.
Frosh, who in prior years urged a mediated resolution to the long-standing HBCU lawsuit, attempted to explain why he’s now extending the legal battle.
“It’s my job to defend the state when it gets sued,” Frosh told HBCU protestors who rallied outside his office in the months following the State’s appeal.
In January, Gov. Larry Hogan, further complicated the State’s message toward HBCU’s by writing to Del. Cheryl Glenn, former chair of the Maryland Legislative Black Caucus (LBC), offering a $100 million-dollar settlement offer, according to The Afro.
While the LBC supports HBCU advocates, the Caucus is not an official party to the lawsuit.
Hogan’s $100 million proposal would be split between Bowie State University, Coppin State University, Morgan State University and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, The Afro reported.
His settlement offer stipulates a 10-year allocation period and relieves the State of responsibility for court costs. Each institution would receive approximately 2.5 million per school, per year.
However, the estimated cost of the Coalition’s Plan to remedy the imbalance in quality academic programming offered at HBCU’s is in the $1-2 billion range.
Hogan’s offer also falls short of the $500 million settlement between the State of Mississippi and plaintiffs representing Mississippi’s three public HBCU’s almost 20 years ago, back in 2001, ending higher education desegregation litigation dating back to the 1970’s in that state.
“The decision by Frosh to appeal the decision from Federal District Court Judge Blake has elevated this issue to the US Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit,” said Maryland advocate Brandon F. Cooper.
“If that Appeals Court also upholds the District Court decision, Frosh could decide to appeal again and then it lands in the U.S Supreme Court. Any decision from the U.S Supreme Court would impact every HBCU, not just those in Maryland,” said Cooper, a member of the Maryland Republican Party Executive Committee.
Cooper said the matter counts as a bipartisan issue and he brought the HBCU attorneys in to testify before the Republican Caucus in the Maryland legislature.
“HBCUs have long enjoyed bipartisan support in states, Congress and the White House,” Cooper said. “However, President Donald Trump has sent mix signals on his continuance of the historically bipartisan support of HBCUs,” he said.
One HBCU alumni said he knows well what a battle between a historically black institution and the state looks like.
In an email, Matthews “Billy” Wright recalled a 50-year-old incident at Coppin State.
“As a [Student Government Association] officer in 1968 we, as student representatives, organized and executed a successful four-week boycott of the campus at Coppin State College and moved the student body to an off-campus site to complete the school year,” Wright said.
“Professors joined in the teaching process of seniors teaching juniors and so on to demonstrate and challenge the state that Coppin, as an HBCU, was being denied funding at the level of the University of Maryland, Towson, and Salisbury. Our cause attracted television anchors, and the governor-to-be Marvin Mandel,” he said.
“Through their efforts and our four-week boycott, Coppin SGA officers were provided time to address the Maryland Legislative Assembly. Student demands were considered, funding promises were made and, in some instances, kept, seniors and all students completed their graduation and matriculation for the year. We were respectful of the campus and President Parlett L. Moore. The ’68-’69 classes were true to their goals.”