The Battle for the Future of Maryland’s HBCU’s


In 2006, a group (the “Coalition”) consisting of friends and supporters, alumni and students of some of the area’s historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) organized to initiate action they individually and collectively believed needed to be taken to address inequities which the State has for too long failed to correct. At issue was a concern that set policies and practices in the State of Maryland relating to HBCUs were impeding the growth and development of these institutions and otherwise undermining the efforts of HBCUs to educate and graduate adequate numbers of students who choose to pursue their higher education goals at these institutions.

They were also concerned that recent specific practices by the State of Maryland impeded the HBCUs from enhancing certain unique courses offered at these institutions by allowing such courses to be introduced and duplicated at competing traditional White institutions (TWI). The frequency of these recent duplications was apparently a high concern of the Coalition in light of similar duplications having been deemed illegal by the Supreme Court in a landmark 1992 case entitled United States vs. Fordice, a case which many in the Black community deem to be on the same level of importance as the historic, Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court case.

Following certain actions taken by the State of Maryland in 2006, a lawsuit was filed by the Coalition to seek a full and fair hearing as to the legality of these questionable policies and practices relating to the Maryland HBCUs and to obtain necessary judicial relief. In order to thwart the Coalition’s efforts to get a fair hearing, the State of Maryland moved to have the case dismissed. On May 11, a hearing was held in federal court to receive the State of Maryland’s arguments as to why the Coalition’s lawsuit should not proceed.

An AFRO reporter attended the hearing and in the May 21 edition of the Baltimore AFRO, an article was published entitled “State Argues HBCUs Not Needed.” That article has generated considerable discussion and concern in the Baltimore Black community as to how and why the State is taking such a position against its own HBCUs. In response to the AFRO article, a letter from the Office of the Maryland Attorney General objecting to the title and various portions of the AFRO article appears in the “Letters to Editors” in this edition. Click here to read a letter to Attorney General Douglas Gansler from the Legislative Black Caucus of Maryland, outlining its objections to the State’s arguments presented at the hearing.

We appreciate the fact that the Office of the Attorney General represents the State and its entities in legal matters, including litigation, and that the office has often defended the HBCUs in litigation. This is a given. However, in the present case, the interests and future welfare of the HBCUs are represented by the Coalition, which consists entirely of private plaintiffs and private counsel. Therefore the lawsuit represents a legal matchup between the Coalition versus the power and clout of the Office of the Attorney General, the “State’s law firm.”

With so much at stake in the Coalition lawsuit, we are not persuaded by the Attorney General’s response and criticism of this paper’s reporting of the State’s arguments at the recent hearing on the State’s motions for summary judgment. In light of our presence at the hearing and our subsequent review of the hearing transcript, we stand by our article and its headline as a fair interpretation of the State’s position. The State’s statements of pride for the four HBCUs neither shield nor mask its written and oral argument that despite continuing inequities, the State has “fully performed” and need do no more to right the wrongs of its past discriminatory system. Instead, as if time heals everything, it asks “How long is long enough before the presumption is that the State is right?”

The Attorney General takes issue with the representation that the State’s argument responded to the plaintiffs’ assertions “in tones of disgust." We disagree. At every turn during the hearing, the State argues that it has done all that it is required to do on behalf of HBCUs and the students who attend them:

* The plaintiffs’ claim that increases in needed resources to these institutions will enhance them to the point of making them viable alternatives for students choosing a place for higher learning.

* The State’s response to this was indeed disparaging: “The State is supposed to allocate its scarce resources [to HBCUs] on some sort of field of dreams idea . . .? Come on. That’s ridiculous.” After all, the State asserted, most African Americans students go to “non-HBCUs” anyway and “Maryland is not Mississippi or Alabama “and “if plaintiffs believe that, then they are drinking some sort of Kool-Aid.”

We see nothing inappropriately “implied” or “speculative” with respect to such statements. Taken in the context of the State’s argument as a whole, the disturbing tone toward HBCUs is quite evident. Our reading of the words and tone of the hearing transcript is that:

* The State is appalled at the notion that it must do more, and

* Since more African Americans are now allegedly going to non-HBCUs better supported by the State, the HBCU’s are not needed.

We understand the public relations ramifications to the Office of the Attorney General in its defense of this lawsuit. That, however, is not our concern. Decades of horrendous discriminatory and segregative practices are not undone by apologies followed by arguments that the State has “diligently performed its obligations” and “should be commended.”

The Attorney General’s rhetorical assertions that the State is “committed to [the HBCUs] success” followed by claims that “we are pleased that the issues HBCUs face have been brought to the attention of the court” with “an accurate factual record, so that it can weigh the issues fairly” do not square with the State’s arguments. In fact, we find them astoundingly hypocritical and embarrassing.

The State cannot credibly apologize for its conduct and then, in disparaging tones, move to dismiss in their entirety all claims made by the Coalition to remedy that conduct followed by a press release and public letter claiming that it holds the HBCUs in the highest regard and is committed to their success. The days of expecting this community to “cave-in” with a benign pat on the head have long since expired. This paper will call-out the State when it attempts to double talk its way out of what we view to be an injustice. The AFRO will continue to fairly and accurately report what is happening in federal district court in this case.

We believe the Coalition’s cause to be a just one. The vestiges of the legislatively required segregation of the past have indeed not been completely and finally removed from the higher education practices and policies of the State of Maryland, and the duplication actions taken by the State in our opinion are blatant examples of the State's illegal violations of the clear holding of the Supreme Court.

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The Battle for the Future of Maryland's HBCU's

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