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AWOL on Civil Rights?

March 14, 2008

The ongoing dispute over M.B.A.offerings in Baltimore, which came to a head last year, rekindled a conversation about race, fairness and public policy that continued Thursday in a Congressional hearing room.

The dispute involves Morgan State University, a historically black college, and two nearby public institutions that opened a joint business school program despite concerns that it duplicated Morgan State's M.B.A. offering and would adversely affect that program's enrollment, diversity and funding. Some contend that by approving the program, Maryland has undermined its own desegregation plans. Defenders of the new program say it meets specific state needs.

Speaking to the House Committee on Education and Labor, Raymond C. Pierce, dean of the North Carolina Central University School of Law and former deputy assistant secretary for the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights, blasted OCR for lack of oversight in such cases, saying that the federal agency under the Bush administration has failed to intervene in ways that would help put a stop to discriminatory treatment of black colleges.

"It's clear that the lack of enforcement of federal civil rights policy at the Department of Education is an agenda," he told lawmakers.

A statement from a department spokeswoman said the agency is committed to enforcing civil rights law, including Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin. OCR has plans in place to make "further and faster progress" in completing the Title VI reviews of the states still remaining on OCR’s “open” statewide higher education desegregation case docket, the department says. Those plans are to conduct reviews by the end of 2008, with states deemed not yet fully in compliance with Title VI asked to sign remedial agreements.

Pierce said during the hearing that he wants the House committee to ask the Education Department when it plans to make decisions about state compliance. "Find them guilty or find them innocent -- just do something," he said in an interview.

The U.S. Supreme Court, in a 1992 decision, ruled that states must do more to desegregate than simply end admissions policies that barred black students from attending mostly white colleges. In the Fordice case (referring to the then-governor of Mississippi), the justices also told states to end duplicate programs at nearby predominantly white and historically black colleges. The theory of the court is that such duplication gives white students an excuse to avoid attending colleges where a majority of students are black. Further, since most state appropriations formulas are enrollment-based, these duplicative programs act to minimize state funds going to black colleges.

In various agreements with OCR, states outlined their plans for how they would comply with federal regulations. Price, who helped review state desegregation plans during the Clinton administration, said some states that agreed to work toward full compliance have not gone far enough since the five-year agreements ended. And they've done so, he argues, without consequence.

An aide to Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), who heads the House committee, said the chairman was "concerned by some of the testimonies he heard [Thursday] suggesting that the Office for Civil Rights has failed to enforce compact agreements," and that he wants to get answers from the agency.

Added Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon (R-Calif.) the committee's ranking Republican: "I think that's a national problem -- selectively enforcing laws," McKeon said.

In the Morgan State case, the Maryland Senate a year ago passed legislation that would force the Maryland Higher Education Commission to reconsider its decision to approve the M.B.A. program jointly offered by Towson University and the University of Baltimore. That bill stalled, and a new version has been introduced in the senate.

The state's commission had rejected a number of new programs, mostly at predominantly white institutions, at the urging of black college supporters. Still, Earl S. Richardson, Morgan State's president, said Thursday that there's been a "constant eating away at the unique programs," and that not enough is being done to help make his university as competitive as its counterparts that enroll mostly white students. (Richardson said Morgan State's M.B.A. program has lost students since the joint program opened.)

"There's now an urgency about moving us toward that standard of comparability," Richardson said, adding that the joint M.B.A. program is "harmful [to Morgan State], not only in terms of efficiency but in terms of diversity issues."

The hearing featured several presidents of black colleges who were in town for the annual meeting of the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education.

 

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