David Wilson took a light-hearted turn, Tuesday, in explaining how Morgan State University would finance $15 million in equipment for its Benjamin Banneker Communications Center.
“This is almost comical, but we would have to rob a bank,” Wilson said to laughter in testimony before U.S. District Court Judge Catherine C. Blake in Baltimore. “But we wouldn’t do that, Your Honor.”
Wilson was among the first witnesses for the Coalition for Equity and Excellence in Maryland Higher Education in its lawsuit against the Maryland Higher Education Commission. The trial began Jan. 3 and is expected to last six weeks.
But Morgan president’s testimony became more serious. “We would have a dickens of a time in doing that,” Wilson said. “We would have to close programs, lay off faculty and staff – and downsize the mission of the institution to address the needs of one program.”
As many as 60 people, including many coalition members, packed into Judge Blake’s courtroom to hear the first day of testimony. A number of individuals, including spectators and lawyers, had to be seated in the jury box to keep from standing.
The coalition contends that the state of Maryland through MHEC has maintained a system of “de jure segregation” – racial segregation imposed by law – in violation of the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court and of Title VI of the U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The lawsuit, filed in 2006, seeks an estimated $2.1 billion to make Maryland’s four historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) – Bowie State University, Coppin State University, Morgan State University and the University of Maryland-Eastern Shore – “comparable and competitive” to the state’s traditionally White institutions (TWI’s).
These include Salisbury State University, Towson University – as well as the University of Maryland- College Park and the University of Maryland-University College.
MHEC, established in 1988 to oversee Maryland’s higher education system, is the leading state entity in the case. Maryland has admitted to operating a de jure segregation system, but contends that it ended with the 1954 Brown decision – and that no such policies or practices exist today.
The state further contends that Maryland’s colleges and universities are open to students of all races, noting that in 2009, 59 percent of Black students within Maryland’s public university system attended White institutions.
In the lawsuit, the coalition contends that Maryland has failed to eliminate its vestiges of segregation in funding for operations and program duplication. It also alleges that, even as Maryland negotiated with the Office for Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Education to dismantle its segregated system, MHEC and other state education officials instituted policies and programs that further separated its Black and White schools.
The issue of operations funding was central to Wilson’s testimony. Having taken over as Morgan’s president last July, he testified how low operational funding presented a constant struggle on many fronts – from keeping up building maintenance to paying for additional faculty to fully addressing students’ educational needs.
He holds master’s and doctorate degrees from Harvard University and has completed a thesis on the desegregation of Kentucky State University, an HBCU in Frankfort in the central part of the state.
“The maintenance budget is woefully inadequate,” Wilson testified. “You’re constantly moving things around to patch a leak here or install and air conditioner there.”
“A university cannot effectively carry out its programmatic mission unless it has the funds to do that,” Wilson testified.
Morgan is a doctoral research institution, Wilson testified, with 15 doctoral programs – including those in business, bioenvironmental sciences, education and engineering. He testified that Morgan lacked sufficient facilities to meet the university’s overall strategic plan for producing world-class research.
“We really don’t have the facilities for our researchers to put out the kind of research that we want,” Wilson testified.
In referencing the $15 million needed to sufficiently equip the Banneker Communications Center, Wilson testified that the need was so acute that it jeopardized the ability of students to get internships with local radio stations.
“We have had radio stations come in here and tell students that if we don’t get the equipment to undergird our students, they won’t take our students as interns,” Wilson testified.
He then added, under questioning by Michael D. Jones, chief counsel for the coalition who is a partner at the Kirkland & Ellis LLP law firm in Washington, “We offer a degree in film editing, but we don’t have the equipment to do film editing.”
And, in some of its science labs, Morgan lacks even the most basic student equipment, Wilson testified.
“Our microscopes are not working in the biology labs,” he said. “These are just the basic things we need to undergird our academic programs.”
Regarding Morgan’s mission, he said the average SAT score is 909 – compared with about 1,200 for the University of Maryland-Baltimore County and 1,300 for College Park. The university has about 8,100 students, he testified.
“We do have students with academic deficiencies,” Wilson testified. “But they have the desire and the motivation to get a college degree – and we have to provide those students with some kind of support.”
And, he testified, this support costs money. “”When you take that out of the operational budget, you’re not able to address critical needs because you’re taking money out to plug another hole.”
Further, most of Morgan’s students – particularly those who are first-generation students – have some sort of financial aid, primarily federal Pell grants. Still, “there is a significant financial need,” Wilson testified – with students needing as much a $6,000 to $8,000 in additional aid per year.
This funding deficit factors heavily in whether a student will return in subsequent years, he said.
As for faculty, Wilson testified that most full-time faculty teach 7.5 courses per school year. “That’s unacceptable at a major research institution,” he said. He would hope to have them teach no more than five courses, split over two semesters. The university also has seen a rise in adjunct instructors – as much as 38 percent in its graduate school.
“My faculty is stretched,” Wilson testified. “My faculty is at a tipping point. My faculty has so much to do with so little that I cannot ask them to do more.
“I have gone to every one of our schools and spent quality time at each of our schools,” Wilson continued. “We can’t afford to put our faculty under any more stress than they are under now.”
The university has nine new programs that would require 30 full-time faculty – tenured or tenure-tracked – to execute them effectively, he testified. “Quite frankly, we can’t implement the programs because we don’t have the faculty members to implement them.”
“I did not assume the presidency of Morgan State University to preside over mediocrity,” Wilson added. “Morgan is a doctoral research institution committed to academic quality and its urban mission.”
In other testimony Tuesday, Muriel Thompson, a Pikesville resident who is pursuing a Ph.D. in community college leadership at Morgan, described the conditions in several university buildings – including the McKeldin Building, which once housed MSU’s student center, and the Jenkins Behavioral Science Building – as “deplorable.”
“If I hadn’t been so determined to have a degree from Morgan – an HBCU – I would have turned around, the moment I stepped in Jenkins,” testified Thompson, who also has taught as an adjunct instructor at Towson University. “It was that bad.”
In addition, both Jones of Kirkland & Ellis and Craig A. Thompson, a partner with the Venable LLP law firm in Baltimore, which is representing MHEC and the state of Maryland, made their opening statements in the case.
At the outset of his statement, Jones declared, “This is a desegregation case about Maryland’s failure to desegregate its higher-education institutions.”
He then cited studies dating back as far as 1937 to illustrate Maryland’s de jure segregation system.
“Since 1937, it appears that Maryland hires blue-ribbon commission after blue-ribbon commission after blue-ribbon commission to study conditions at its HBCUs,” Jones said before beginning his PowerPoint presentation of the key points of these studies.
The reports either confirm the existence of Maryland’s segregated system or conclude that the state needs to shore up HBCUs on several fronts – including financing, facilities and program uniqueness – to bring the institutions on par with Maryland’s TWIs.
A 1947 study on “separate but equal” higher educational facilities indicated that Maryland “made no pretext for making equal facilities for Black students,” Jones said. Four years after the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown decision, a report noted that the state’s HBCUs welcomed the decision because “they would now be able to attract White students,” he said.
A 1960 study concluded that Morgan should be a branch of the University of Baltimore, with both serving as the primary institutions for professional education in Baltimore – rather than Towson, which was known then as Towson State Teachers’ College. And, a 1970 report concluded that Maryland had too many higher-education institutions and, as a result, Salisbury State College – now Salisbury University -- should have been merged into UMES.
“Maryland has not eradicated vestiges of its de jure era – and its current policies and practices are traceable to the de jure era,” Jones said in concluding his opening statement.
In his opening statement, Craig Thompson noted that it was important to consider three variables in this case: context, change and choice.
Various case law – including the Supreme Court’s 1972 decision in U.S. v. Fordice regarding Mississippi’s higher education system – would provide context, Thompson said. In Fordice, the court ruled that Mississippi had operated a segregated higher education system – and the justices set the legal standards to be imposed upon states that still needed to remedy the inequities of segregation.
As for “change,” he said, “Maryland and its historically Black institutions have experienced tremendous change over the years.” And, for the third variable – “choice” – he underscored how Maryland students may now choose to attend a wide range of educational institutions in the state, which did not occur during the de jure era.
He emphasized the need to weigh how these variables affected the students of Maryland – “because students have rights, not buildings.”
“This case is about student choice,” Thompson said. “The suppression of student choice is at issue.”