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Advocates, state trade blame as trial begins over fix for segregation at Md. colleges

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Morgan State University (File photo)

Attorneys traded blame Monday for a failure to find a meaningful solution to inequality among Maryland’s colleges and universities since a federal judge found in four years ago that the university system had failed to effectively desegregate its institutions.

U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Blake previously recommended mediation after ruling in the decades-old case that the state maintained “a dual and segregated education system” and that its practices were in violation of the constitution. Yet there was Blake on Monday, hearing opening arguments in the remedy phase of the trial because mediation between the state’s four historically black institutions and the Maryland Higher Education Commission the failed to bring a satisfactory resolution.

Michael D. Jones, on behalf of the Coalition for Equity and Excellence in Maryland Higher Education, which represents the state’s four historically black institutions, told Blake the state has dragged its feet and exhibited an “extraordinary disregard for its constitutional obligations.” Jones likened its aggressive defense to that of the federal government in Brown v. Board of Education more than 60 years ago.

The state has underfunded Morgan State, Coppin State and Bowie State universities and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore while developing programs at traditionally white schools that directly compete with and drain prospective students away from the African American schools, according to Jones, of Kirkland & Ellis LLP in Washington, D.C.

The plaintiffs have proposed a system of developing niche programs at the four schools to help them attract students and develop institutional identities. The proposal also asks the state to transfer some of its high-demand programs to the historically black schools.

But a lawyer for the commission said his client does not impose programs on institutions but rather approves them after they have sprung up organically from student and faculty interest. It would be harmful to the university system as a whole to foist programs onto institutions that know their own operations and students best, according to Cy Smith, a partner at Zuckerman Spaeder LLP in Baltimore, who called the move a “costly straitjacket.”

Morgan State President David Wilson testified Monday that there are several ways to diversify, but the most significant approach is simply offering programs that provide a draw and returning courses that have been duplicated at traditionally white schools.

“When we look at how many programs at Morgan have been duplicated at nearby universities, transferring those programs back would be a good place to start,” he said.

‘Crippling’ effect

Smith, in his opening statement, said the plaintiffs have no evidence their proposal will draw a more diverse student population to the historically black institutions but instead may “cripple” other universities in the system in the process by removing important programs.

The universities themselves must be empowered to make program decisions, Smith added, pointing to a list of dozens of proposed programs that have been approved at historically black institutions since MHEC changed its regulations in 2012 to add considerations for the implementation or maintenance of programs on their campuses.

The regulations “put a thumb on the scale” for the four schools when they request approval for a program, according to Smith.

The state also pointed to the already-diverse programs at other schools in the state, which the coalition is seeking to have transferred.

Blake asked why MHEC has not worked with the plaintiffs, whose proposals, she said, did not have to be a straitjacket. Smith replied the state is seeking small, measured steps rather than a “high-stakes gamble” and put forth by the coalition.

The state has estimated the cost of implementing the plaintiffs’ plan in the billions, according to Smith. Annual expenditures on the entire state system are approximately $1.8 billion.

Jones said an expert will counter the state’s estimates.

Attorneys estimated the plaintiffs’ case will take at least three weeks to present with the defense expecting lengthy cross examination. Testimony is scheduled to continue Tuesday.

The case is Coalition for Equity and Excellence in Maryland Higher Education Inc. et al. v. Maryland Higher Education Commission et al., 1:06-cv-02773.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.