By Shernay Williams, Special to the NNPA from the AFRO-American newspapers –
Donique Warden, a junior at Coppin State University, remembers a time when the school library stayed open until 2 a.m. “Now it closes at 11 and I don’t even get off work until 11 p.m.,” she said. “When I asked librarians about it, they said it’s because they don’t have the money to keep it open that late anymore.”
She says “it makes no sense” that she has to purchase almost half of her books from other schools because they aren’t stocked in Coppin’s library. The sports management major said her friend at Morgan State University also criticizes her school because resources for facilities like the library are “slim to nothing.”
In spite of all the new buildings, in 2011, many students are still reflecting on the disparities that exist for Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) in Maryland.
The Coalition for Equity and Excellence in Higher Education and a cluster of current students and alumni from Maryland’s four HBCU’s say Warden’s experiences demonstrate inequity in state funding. The group is suing the state and the Maryland Higher Education Commission for upwards of $2 billion, a sum their funding expert estimates was collectively withheld from Coppin, Morgan, Bowie State University, and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore between 1984 and 2009.
“If these institutions had not been discriminated against for all these years or if Maryland had taken the steps to enhance them, there’s no reason why they couldn’t be comparable to (traditionally White institutions),” said Michael D. Jones, civil rights attorney representing the coalition. Jones contends the funding disparity has led to fewer resources, aging facilities, and ultimately, lower retention rates at HBCUs.
The case’s six-week trial is set to begin June 27.
The matter has been in litigation since October 2006, after the coalition was angered that the state boasted of full compliance with a partnership agreement established in 2000 with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights that dictated Maryland’s HBCUs achieve parity in funding, facilities and academic program development. The lawsuit alleges that the state is in violation of the agreement and the requirements of the agreement have not been completed.
The eight plaintiffs that filed in addition to the coalition are predominately comprised of Morgan graduates and students, one Coppin graduate and a student from Bowie State University. The HBCUs themselves are not parties in the case.
Program duplication is also at the center of the complaint.
Jones said during the pre-1954 era of segregation, it was vital for Black and White institutions to offer the same academic programs because Blacks were not allowed to attend White institutions. Yet, when colleges were forced to integrate and “level the playing field,” the Supreme Court mandated that states eliminate all vestiges of segregation, including uneven funding levels and duplicate academic programs.
Plaintiffs say the legal case is fighting for HBCUs to be given the opportunity to offer unique, high demand programs; have state-of-the-art facilities and be allocated funding to make their universities more appealing, particularly to prospective students from different racial backgrounds.
The AFRO’s calls to the Higher Education Commission for comment were directed to Assistant Attorney General Catherine Shultz. I n an e-mail, Shultz forwarded a memorandum that detailed the state’s position in the case.
The state alleges they have satisfied all requirements under the partnership agreement and severed any discriminatory policies that are traceable back to segregation. In memos dated April 22, the state contends the plaintiffs “conjured up” racial disparities in Maryland’s university funding system, adding that even if inequities exist, they were the result of the long-term effects of the state’s previous practices, not their current policies.
The defense also argues that HBCUs have received enhancement funding during the last several years, even raking in 55 percent higher on average than other institutions, with the exclusion of College Park. They’ve filed a motion of summary judgment to settle portions of the complaint out of court.
Some HBCUs, including Coppin State University, have begun to receive “back funding” they were previously denied during the years, which has allowed their campuses to undergo a physical renaissance, but Jones says “the key phrase is that these HBCUs are starting to get funding.”
“When we say that they are entitled to additional funding, we are factoring in that they have been getting additional funding in recent years. But the point is that it is starting and not even Maryland officials contend that it is enough.”
He said former secretary of the Maryland Higher Education Commission, Dr. James E. Lyons, admitted HBCUs were underfunded, and members of the state’s appointed HBCU assessment boards found that the recent enhanced funding was “essentially not enough to get HBCUs out of the hole they were in.”
“I don’t see how the state can diagnose a problem but withhold a cure,” Jones said. “If you know that it’s related to funding than they should fund it.”
Dr. Earl Richardson, who is not a plaintiff in the case but fought for similar resources as the former president of Morgan State University, said Maryland’s HBCUs should receive the same investment as other public universities. “But you can’t do that by providing the same percentage increase for those that have it and for ones that don’t,” he said. “The gap that has historically existed between HBCUs and other public colleges only gets wider and you are putting more into the already advantaged before you have leveled the playing field.
“Unless you have comparable facilities, comparable resources, comparable funding and a mix of programs to attract the very best students as well as some on the margin, than these schools are not going to be able to compete."
Warden concurs. “I love my school and I just wrote a story about the importance of HBCUs,” she said. “But I feel like something needs to be done.”