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Report critical of MHEC, how state handles colleges’ objections to programs

Morgan State University has objected to proposed programs 11 times over the last five years — the most of any public university. (The Daily Record/File Photo)

Maryland should reconsider rules that allow public universities to object to the creation of new education programs, according to a newly released report to the General Assembly.

The report calls for a systemic overhaul of the Maryland Higher Education Commission. It also specifically highlighted the commission’s rules on allowing public institutions to essentially block proposals of other universities.

“MHEC should discontinue its practice of allowing institutions to object to others new proposals for programs,” said the report from the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems. “It makes sense to ask for comments, but these should be to help improve the new program not to set up barriers to innovation that could help students and employers. MHEC should encourage institutions to review one another’s three-year plans to examine areas for potential collaborations to strengthen each collaborating institutions’ program offerings and student access.”

MHEC Secretary James Fielder did not respond to a request for an interview. A spokeswoman for the commission did not respond to a request for comment.

The consultants noted that MHEC appears to defer to objections from the state’s historically Black colleges and universities, commonly known as HBCUs.

“MHEC has been using the program review process to address historic inequities in campus resources among the (HBCUs) and to help them attract a more diverse student body,” according to the report. “It does not put students’ needs first. It creates barriers to innovation and does not support thriving institutions. It is not transparent nor predictable, nor is it based on evaluated evidence.”

Morgan State University has objected to proposed programs 11 times over the last five years — the most of any public university. Bowie, Coppin State and the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore combined for 10.

Of those, Morgan State was successful six times — the most of any public university.

The report comes at a time when Morgan’s academic star is on the rise.

“We’re now seeing that Morgan State, given the resources and the innovation, it’s really developing terrifically,” said Sen. Paul Pinsky, D-Prince George’s and chair of the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee. “Morgan is really growing. I think it’s starting to challenge Howard University nationally in terms of being an outstanding institution. ”

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As part of its recommendations, consultants called for MHEC to raise the standards for when a program change must be reviewed. They also recommended eliminating the objection process in favor of requiring public universities to develop three-year plans for program offerings and to consider the needs of employers.

Pinsky urged a slot approach when it comes to changes in reviewing duplicative programs.

“You can’t just let it be the Wild West, free to be you and me, because some folks will suffer. Historically, the people who suffered are either under-resourced or I guess in our state are HBCUs,” he said. “That being said, we also have to have some processes. You can’t object to everything because five years from now you might want to have a program. You can’t use this as a free opportunity to block any initiative or new idea. You just can’t do that.”

The national consultant was hired following the passage of House Bill 1 in 2021. That bill was part of a settlement of a 2006 federal lawsuit. In 2013 a U.S. District Court judge ruled the state effectively maintained “a dual and segregated” higher education system. The judge found the state underfunded Maryland’s four Historically Black Colleges and Universities while developing programs at traditionally white public universities that competed with them and lured students away.

As part of a settlement, the General Assembly passed legislation providing for a nearly $580 million payment and a review of the Maryland Higher Education Commission.

The bill was sponsored by House Speaker Adrienne Jones, D-Baltimore County. Her office did not respond to a request for comment.

Consultants on the report found that MHEC strictly adhered to regulations in making decisions. But often its decisions were vague and not timely.

“MHEC itself is a whole other conversation. It’s a mess,” said Pinsky. “There are a number of us in the House and Senate who think a very serious review of MHEC and how it fits into education in our state has to be utilized. I’m not alone in that. The last seven years it’s been a mess for multiple reasons.”

Consultants for the state compared Maryland to other states including: Alabama, which has 14 public and private HBCUs; Arkansas; Louisiana; Mississippi; Ohio; South Carolina; and Virginia.

“Some, like Maryland, seem to favor an approach that protects other institutions from any harm. Others, like Alabama, Arkansas, and Louisiana seem to focus more on access for students to needed programs,” the consultants noted. “Both require that proposing institutions look not just within their state but also in neighboring states for similar programs. Some states have very specific definitions of unreasonable duplication and others are more vague.”

But it was Maryland’s rules allowing proposed academic programs to be challenged by other state universities that drew particular concern.

“MHEC’s first-come, first-serve treatment of program approval has contributed to an atmosphere of distrust among the institutions,” the consultants wrote. “The stakeholders attributed this in part to MHEC’s system of allowing anyone to object to new program proposals. There were cases described in which an objection was raised to a new program, MHEC sustaining the objection, and the objecting institution then hiring the faculty who were working at the institution that had proposed the new program.”

That case mentioned in the report related to a Mechatronics program proposed by the University of Maryland, College Park, according to legislative sources.

“In another incident, a new program was approved over an objection lodged on the basis of insufficient supply of qualified faculty, then the institution proposing the new program hired away faculty from the existing program,” according to the report. “This could lead to an arms race for specialized faculty that is likely to increase costs to students.”