By Alexis Taylor, Special to the NNPA from the Afro-American Newspaper –
Dr. Samuel Myers said it “hurt his heart” as he listened to testimony at the ongoing HBCU Equality trial, Jan. 31. The president emeritus of Bowie State College, one of Maryland’s four HBCUs, said he’s spent his life working in higher education. “And I’ve seen the disparities that exist between funding for Blacks in higher education and those generally,” he said. “And I know that the courts have long since ruled that the disparity be eliminated.”
He had no problem declaring, “But it still exists.”
Which is most likely the reason he was joined in the Garmatz Courtroom by other former educators and administrators including Dr. Andrew Billingsley, former president of Morgan State University; Dr. Arthur Thomas, former president Central State University; Dr. Wilma J. Roscoe, retired vice president of National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education (NAFEO) and Raymond Pierce, dean, North Carolina Central State Law School and who also served as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education during the Clinton Administration.
Pierce was angered by the visible absence of anyone from the Obama Administration. “It is a shame that the Office for Civil Rights has had no presence in this trial,” Pierce said. “I find it very troubling.”
The absence, he said, raised serious questions about the Obama Administration’s commitment to civil rights and educational equality. Myers was incensed that anyone could say HBCUs need to become more competitive with other schools.
“I know each institution needs to and wants to survive in its own right, but this inequitable funding hurts the entire nation. When you have a high unemployment rate among young Black males, education is needed to get them into the workforce,” he said, indicating that his work with national and international organizations gives him a broader perspective.
“It’s not a matter of largesse, not charity, not goodwill to provide equitable treatment for Blacks.”
Claiming that Maryland has perpetuated a system of segregation by underfunding and allowing program duplication by nearby traditionally white schools (TWIs) the presidents were also joined this week by the very students they’re fighting for.
Following the precedent set by Black clergy members who gathered in the courtroom last week to maintain support, students could be seen lining the front row in their business attire, silently making their voices and their presence known. The case, which was filed by The Coalition for Equity and Excellence in Maryland Higher Education in October 2006, drew a crowd of more than 40, made up of university presidents, faculty, students, and concerned citizens.
As students return to classes at Bowie State University, Coppin State University, Morgan State University, and University of Maryland Eastern Shore, the case continues to unfold in courtroom 7D of the Garmatz Federal Courthouse building. Testimony from Joseph Vivona, chief operating officer and vice chancellor for administration and finance for the University System of Maryland (USM) could be heard along with that of former Towson University president, Dr. Robert Caret.
“When the investment made by the state in white institutions is compared to the state’s investment in historically Black colleges, there is little comparison,” said Dr. Earl S. Richardson, president of Morgan State University from 1984 to 2010. “If one were to look at the investments made in the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and then at Morgan- one can see that there is a stark difference,” said Dr. Richardson in response to Vivona’s testimony, which gave the impression that the state of Maryland has gone out of its way to fund historical Black institutions (HBIs).
“The whole idea of the lawsuit by the Coalition is now to ensure that there is equity in the investment made by the state in Black institutions versus white institutions.”
National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education (NAFEO) president and CEO, Lezli Baskerville, said “This case will directly impact the shape of the higher education debate in 2012 and beyond in the 25 states that have HBCUs and TWIs, as well as the work of NAFEO.” The organization, which was founded in 1969, is the sole association that represents the chancellors and presidents of HBCUs. “What this court decides will determine whether public higher education in America remains separate and unequal, or whether the nation moves toward a more excellence, equitable and just higher education system…” said Baskerville.
Giving students special incentive to make their way down to the courtroom, some classes are even giving students extra time and credit for sitting on the proceedings. “I would definitely come down and support even if it wasn’t for class credit because I am pursuing my master’s degree in higher education administration and this is an issue in higher education,” said Bera Cotten, of Morgan State University. Encouraging students who are might be sleeping in or hanging out during their spare time before and after class, Cotton says the case allows you to “get an understanding of what’s going on” and “provides you with information dealing with your historical Black institution.”
An alumnus of Coppin University, Marvin “Doc” Cheatham said he was “elated to see the students” who came out and “hoping that more will come.” A staple in the Baltimore community and beyond through his civil rights work with the National Action Network and the NAACP, Cheatham says the case is not only important to Maryland’s historical Black institutions but to those across the country as well who are dealing with issues of underfunding and program duplication.