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Defining Desegregation

October 22, 2012

This fall the University of Mississippi is holding a series of events to mark the 50th anniversary of James Meredith enrolling as the institution's first black student. And the U.S. Supreme Court is considering a lawsuit over the steps a flagship state university (in this case the University of Texas at Austin) can take to recruit black and Latino students.

And in Baltimore, six years of litigation are drawing to a close over the question of whether Maryland's higher education system has desegregated. In the Maryland suit, advocates for the state's four public historically black colleges argue that the state never met its obligations to make those institutions "comparable and competitive" with the predominantly white institutions that -- for the decades of Jim Crow -- received preferential treatment. The advocates for the historically black colleges want the institutions to receive $1 billion for new programs and facilities that would attract students of all races.

But the state argues that desegregation should be defined by the opportunities available to students of all races, and that these opportunities in Maryland illustrate that the state has indeed desegregated.

Closing arguments were made Friday, and lawyers for the respective sides filed hundreds of pages of summaries of their legal arguments. Judge Catherine C. Blake will now review the case and, eventually, issue a decision. The case was on hold for several years while lawyers for the two sides attempted to negotiate a settlement, and the trial moved ahead only when those talks collapsed. While the details of the legal filings focus on Maryland's public higher education system, the case has been closely watched by public historically black colleges in many other states, where many feel that their institutions have never received adequate money and support from their states.

A Focus on History and Programs

The plaintiffs' final arguments and proposed resolution focused heavily on history. The legal papers discuss the evolution of higher education and how Maryland viewed the historically black colleges -- Bowie State, Coppin State and Morgan State Universities and the University of Maryland-Eastern Shore -- as tools to enforce segregation. The plaintiffs' legal papers include, for example, an analysis prepared by the state to track spending on higher education in the decade 1926 to 1936. During that time, 11 white institutions received a total of just under $11 million, while the three historically black colleges then in the system received $774,000.

The document shows that the state gave $742,000 during that period to a single private institution, Johns Hopkins University -- just a bit less than it gave to all the public black colleges created by Maryland.

The history is important, the brief argues, because it resulted in historically black institutions that lacked the facilities, the volumes in the library, the endowed funds for scholarships (and more) that the other institutions had. As de jure segregation was eliminated and Maryland's public colleges became open to students of all races and ethnicities, the state undertook a series of studies (some with the supervision of federal officials) on the future of the historically black colleges. Maryland -- in an approach used by all states that operated formally segregated higher education systems -- pledged to improve programs and to offer some unique programs at the black colleges.

The idea behind this approach was that white students would likely stick to traditional enrollment patterns and ignore the black colleges unless those institutions had high-demand, unique programs. By attracting white students and their tuition dollars, black colleges would be able to improve all of their programs, benefiting all the students enrolling there. In many states, including Maryland, the existence of predominantly white and historically black institutions in close proximity led to extensive debates about whether duplicative programs were being used to encourage continued segregation.

The plaintiffs quote an analysis of the academic programs in the state to argue that 65 of the 109 academic programs (leaving aside "core" programs one might find at any colleges) at public historically black colleges are "unnecessarily duplicated" at predominantly white institutions.

Disputes over new academic programs have frustrated both historically black and other colleges in Maryland for years. Advocates for historically black colleges have long complained about a joint M.B.A. program involving the University of Baltimore and Towson University, but Towson officials said that they sought to create it only after being rebuffed by historically black Morgan State about doing the program together.

In other cases, limits on what non-black colleges can offer have led to complaints. In 2009, for instance, state officials blocked the University of Maryland University College from offering an online program in community college administration to state residents because doing so would compete with a program at Morgan State. As a result UMUC is one of the few state institutions to offer an academic program only to students from outside its own state.

The conclusion of the plaintiffs' final brief to the judge called for her to assure that historically black colleges gain "exclusivity" in certain academic programs, both by developing new programs at black colleges and transferring some existing programs from white to black institutions. Unique programs -- along with more money to improve all programs -- would result in true desegregation, the brief argues.

A Focus on Students

The brief from the state doesn't dispute that historically black colleges were created in conditions of terrible inequality, or that they were for decades denied a fair shot at state funds. Rather, the brief questions whether that history is relevant to deciding whether illegal segregation exists today. The trial featured evidence of "leaky roofs, poorly maintained buildings and allegedly inadequate library holdings" at black colleges, the state brief said. "What the court did not hear or see during the proceedings was any evidence of a lack of student choice or a perpetuation of a segregated dual system of higher education."

The legal question of segregation, the state argues, is not whether historically black colleges are seen as black institutions, but whether the existence of these institutions is part of a system that limits student opportunities based on race.

The state argues that enrollment figures show that all Maryland colleges are open to students of all races, and says that the "vast majority" of black students attend institutions other than historically black colleges. Of black students attending a public four-year college or university, 59 percent are at institutions other than black colleges. When community colleges and private institutions are factored in, 81 percent of black college students in Maryland attend institutions other than black colleges, the state says.

"It is not institutions, but student choice, that the Supreme Court ... deemed to be entitled to Constitutional protection," the brief says. It goes on to say that the argument of black college supporters that those institutions need to be made competitive with predominantly white institutions "is reminiscent of the principle and practice rejected as unconstitutional by the Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education."

A Rally Before a Waiting Period

On Friday, students from the state's historically black colleges rallied outside the court where final arguments were made.

An account of Friday's hearing in The Baltimore Sun said that Judge Blake seemed concerned about the program duplication issue (which could favor the plaintiffs) but also asked questions about the extent to which disparities can be traced to the abandoned de jure segregation (a line of questioning that could favor the state).

She said her ruling would not be "immediate."

 

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