On the surface, the battle in Maryland over a new M.B.A. program might seem to be just another parochial fight between neighboring colleges. But the dispute over which public universities in Baltimore should offer an M.B.A. escalated this week in a way that educators say raises serious issues about desegregation, state planning in higher education and fairness.
The Maryland Senate on Tuesday passed legislation that would force the Maryland Higher Education Commission to reconsider its decision to approve a new M.B.A. jointly offered by Towson University and the University of Baltimore. And if the commission doesn't kill the program, Morgan State University would have the right to go to state court under the bill to try to seek an order to do so. Morgan State, a historically black institution that has offered an M.B.A. for decades, maintains that the new M.B.A. will divert students and funds from it, undermining the state's desegregation plan.
The Senate bill was pushed hard by the powerful black legislative caucus. If it passes the House of Delegates and is signed into law -- currently considered likely but not a sure thing -- it could kill off (as its sponsors want) a Towson-Baltimore M.B.A. that is already attracting far more students than enroll for an M.B.A. at Morgan State.
To supporters of Morgan State, that's exactly what should happen because they think the state tried to do an end run around its desegregation commitments by approving the competing program at a non-black college. But to others, such a move would put the interests of a historically black college above the interests of the state's students and amount to political interference in education decision making.
While the issue has come to a head in Maryland, it is hardly unique to the state. In many other states, historically black and predominantly white institutions are located near one another -- and many believe that choices over which institutions control which programs could have a huge impact on the vitality of the institutions involved.
If the Towson-Baltimore M.B.A. program is allowed to remain, "it would violate the letter and spirit of desegregation," said Lezli Baskerville, president of the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education, the national group of historically black colleges. "It would make a mockery of the state's pledges."
But Robert L. Caret, president of Towson, said that the Maryland Senate's action is making a mockery of the way decisions need to be made in higher education. "These public policy issues need to largely be driven by the needs of the public, not the needs of the institution," he said. If the bill becomes law, "we'll end up spending four years in court fighting each other while the public waits for a newM.B.A. program."
The reason such lofty principles are cited with regard to an M.B.A. program relates in large part to the guidelines set in 1992 by the U.S. Supreme Court for desegregating public higher education systems. In the Fordice case  (named for the then-governor of Mississippi), the court ruled that states needed to do more to desegregate than simply end admissions policies that barred black students from predominantly white colleges. The justices ruled that states needed to end duplicative programs at nearby predominantly white and historically black colleges.
The focus on duplicative programs is based on several ideas. One is that the programs are a manifestation of the "separate but equal" idea in which by having two similar programs, states may be encouraging white students to attend one institution and black students to attend another. But another key idea is that "separate but equal" is rarely equal, and favors the white institutions, so only when prestigious, growing programs are placed at black colleges will those institutions get a fair share of students of all races and the state funds that follow.
In practice, this has meant that state and federal agencies that oversee desegregation efforts in states that once had de jure segregation (Maryland among them) focus considerable time and attention on issues of program duplication. The Maryland Higher Education Commission had rejected 10 proposed new programs at predominantly white institutions -- most of the rejections at the behest of Morgan State and other black colleges -- before the approval of the Towson-Baltimore M.B.A. And that approval only came after Towson tried to set up a joint M.B.A. with Morgan, but was rebuffed.
The commission has a new leader -- James E. Lyons Sr., the secretary of higher education -- who started in his position on Wednesday without having been involved in the decision to approve the Towson-Baltimore M.B.A., but with plenty of experience dealing with desegregation. Lyons has been president of two public historically black colleges: Maryland's Bowie State University and Mississippi's Jackson State University. He knows all about the program duplication issue. In Mississippi, he said that he and others were worried about proposals to put duplicative programs 30 miles away from Jackson State, because there were plenty of white students "who would drive 30 miles" rather than enroll at a black college.
In Maryland, where the Baltimore institutions are much more contiguous, "it becomes a real challenge for everyone to deal with," Lyons said.
Lyons said that he didn't want to offer an opinion on the M.B.A. programs because he could be involved in resolving the dispute. But he said that there were legitimate reasons to avoid duplication. He also said that it was far better to deal with these matters in a coordinating board such as his than in the courts. "I don't think anyone wants the courts to be making higher education decisions."
Paul E. Lingenfelter, president of the State Higher Education Executive Officers, said that coordinating boards try to balance all kinds of issues when reviewing program disputes, even when there is no desegregation issue. Limiting the number of programs could promote efficiency and quality, he said. "It doesn't make a whole lot of sense for a state to support seven weak Ph.D. programs in history as opposed to a few strong ones."
On the other hand, "sometimes it boils down to people looking for ways of controlling the market for a particular service and people don't like competitors and prefer monopolies," he said.
So which is it in Maryland? Caret, the Towson president, said that he understands the idea of avoiding program duplication. He said that if Morgan State had just created an M.B.A. program and was trying to get it off the ground, it wouldn't make sense for the state to allow another one to get started. But Caret noted that Morgan State has had its programs for several decades -- and that enrollment has been dropping. It's now around 70. "This hasn't been a successful program," he said, adding that the students that the Towson-Baltimore program is attracting wouldn't have gone to Morgan State anyway, but would have enrolled at private universities' programs.
As evidence of the demand, Caret noted the popularity of the new program. It started in the fall with 150 students and gained another 100 at the start of the current semester. (The program is designed for working adults and so does not require a fall start.) "There was a real need here," Caret said.
Otis A. Thomas, dean of Morgan State's business school, acknowledged that the long-term enrollment in his M.B.A. program has declined, but of Caret's statements about quality said, "I don't see how he can say that." He said that the Fordice decision was clear: "The law should prevail," he said. "There was a clear case in Fordice that there should be no duplication."
Baskerville, of NAFEO, agreed. "In order for black colleges to have the opportunity to catch up after not being provided with the kinds of resources needed to compete, they need there not to be duplication," she said. Morgan State has "a stronghold" in business education, she said, and its programs are well respected, but need more support. If there is more need in the Baltimore area, she said, the state should improve Morgan State and help it meet that need. "We are competing for the same students," she said.
The issue is particularly important in "growth areas," she said, such as business education. Duplication "pulls from our base of support."
Some advocates for public black colleges say that the Maryland debate reflects an unfair situation in which black colleges have been placed. Albert L. Samuels, associate professor of political science at Southern University at Baton Rouge, is the author of Is Separate Unequal? Black Colleges and the Challenge to Desegregation  (University Press of Kansas), in which he argues that the Fordice decision has led to an inappropriate and unfair focus in state policy about black colleges. Fordice said that "all colleges are equally guilty" of segregation, he said in an interview, so public black colleges such as Morgan State are forced to emphasize those programs that might attract more white students.
This is unfair, he said, because Morgan State and its counterparts never created segregation or excluded white students. It was the white flagships that excluded black students. But with the program duplication emphasis, he said, black colleges are forced to add the programs that don't necessarily serve their black students. "When the settlement plans focus on the question of making black colleges attractive to other-race students, it's probably at the expense of the educational needs of black students," he said.
There is no question that Morgan State and every other public black college was discriminated against in the allocation of resources, Samuels said. And as a result, the black students who attended -- and continue to attend -- such institutions don't have the range of facilities and programs and resources they should have. But black college leaders are nervous about talking about how they need more money to serve their black students, he said, "because we don't want to sound like we are endorsing Plessy v. Ferguson."
The logic for Morgan State to protect its M.B.A. program is consistent with how education leaders have thought about these issues since Fordice, Samuels said. But is it correct? "Black colleges are forced to make almost unnatural arguments," he said. "You end up with black colleges being forced to argue for desegregation and for money to attract white students, when what they really want and need is more money period, which they and their students need because they were underfunded for years."