Collaboration or Merger?

Maryland officials call a proposal to merge a commuter institution with a HBCU a "far-reaching, risky scheme," arguing instead that joint degree programs can better end decades of racial inequity among the state's public colleges.

November 23, 2015
Morgan State University

Maryland’s state higher education body and a group advocating on behalf of the state’s four public historically black colleges and universities disagree on how best to solve inequities that, according to a federal judge, are perpetuating segregation and putting HBCUs at a disadvantage to their predominantly white peers.

In a Friday court filing, the Maryland Higher Education Commission called a proposal to merge Morgan State University with the University of Baltimore a “far-reaching, risky scheme.”

Instead of a merger, the state suggested creating a $10 million fund that would promote collaborative degree programs between HBCUs and other state universities -- a concession to calls to further integrate Maryland's public universities, but a more moderate approach than the one HBCU advocates favor.

The filing was a response to U.S. Judge Catherine C. Blake’s 2013 ruling that Maryland had allowed the state’s predominantly white universities to duplicate programs offered by HBCUs, causing enrollment and other struggles at the state’s black institutions and furthering segregation in the system. At the time, Blake ordered mediation between MHEC and the Coalition for Equity and Excellence in Maryland Higher Education, which first sued the commission in 2006. Then each party was tasked with coming up with proposals to remedy inequities in the system.

In May the coalition, which consists of alumni of and advocates for the state’s HBCUs, suggested a merger of the University of Baltimore into Morgan.

Such a merger, the group said, would address years of program duplication at UB that has negatively affected enrollment at Morgan and “establish Morgan as the most distinctive public university in Baltimore.” The coalition also suggested transferring some academic programs from the state’s traditional institutions to its HBCUs and repositioning the state system’s online college to primarily serve the state’s public black colleges.

UB and Towson University, both located in the Baltimore area, created a joint M.B.A. program in 2005, despite objections that the program would duplicate an existing one at Morgan. The result, plaintiffs say, was lackluster white enrollment in the Morgan program. Blake, in her 2013 ruling, highlighted the joint M.B.A. program as a strong example of how the Maryland commission allowed program duplication to damage HBCUs and cause segregation within the system.

In the response filed late Friday, MHEC said it was phasing out the joint degree program between Towson and UB.

A merger between Morgan State and the University of Baltimore, however, would be costly and difficult because of the different cultures at the two institutions, the MHEC response stated. For example, Morgan is a residential college, whereas UB is largely a commuter institution. Also, MHEC noted that UB is already one of the most racially diverse public institutions in the state.

“Conditions for a successful merger of UB into Morgan do not exist, because the colleges have different missions and serve different student populations,” MHEC’s Friday filing said.

Instead, the commission proposed creating a fund to support collaboration between the state’s traditional universities and HBCUs, including new joint and dual degree programs. The fund would provide as much as $10 million over the course of six years to support collaborative initiatives, which MHEC says would be the most “educationally sound and practicable way to expand the white student presence at Maryland HBIs while increasing, rather than restricting, academic opportunities for Maryland students.”

MHEC also proposed an “early summer academy” at each of the HBCUs where rising high school upperclassmen could receive college credit during six weeks of residential study at the colleges. MHEC argues that the academies would expose students to the state’s HBCUs and in turn result in an enrollment boost for those institutions.

“Remedies which emphasize the normal processes of educational institutions, and increase choices for their current and prospective students, hold great promise,” the MHEC filing said. “They also avoid the extraordinary costs imposed by Plaintiffs’ far-reaching, risky scheme.”

With MHEC's filings submitted Friday, proposals from both sides of the 2006 lawsuit are before Blake, who will ultimately decide on a chosen remedy for segregation within Maryland's public universities.

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Kellie Woodhouse

Kellie Woodhouse, Reporter, joined Inside Higher Ed in 2015. She covers business, funding and leadership in higher education. Previously she was a higher education and University of Michigan reporter for The Ann Arbor News and for three years and a general assignment reporter for The Baltimore Sun Media Group for two years. She interned at The Sun and National Geographic and graduated from the University of Maryland's Philip Merrill College of Journalism, where she was a staff writer for the daily student newspaper, The Diamondback. She has won press awards for investigative, public service and government reporting, as well as feature writing and ongoing coverage of a news event.

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