Monday, November 20, 2017

Baltimore's HBCUs, a lawsuit and the urban question

The case  "Equity vs Maryland Higher Education Commission" between Maryland’s historically black colleges (HBCUs) and universities and the traditionally white institutions (TWI) has been going back and forth for years with accusations flying and proposed remedies being rejected at a rapid pace. The case argues institutional racism, education, investment and development in a unique brew of arguments and counter arguments. Now there is a verdict. Is it going to be good for Baltimore?
Historically Black Colleges and Universities are institutions of higher education in the United States that were established before 1964 with the intention of serving the African American Community. They were created to give African Americans Citizens equal educational opportunites...Historically Black Colleges and Universities have done wonderful things for the African American Community. For example, more than 50% of the nations African American public school teachers and 70% of African American dentists have earned degrees at HBCU's. (HBCU Connect)
Maryland's HBCUs
The case goes back to 2005, to 2000 and ultimately to the civil rights legislation of 1964. The actual case begins when Towson University and the University of Baltimore applied for a joint MBA program at the Maryland Higher Education Commission (MHEC) which oversees all universities in the state and approved the Towson/UB program.

In 2006 alumni and faculty of the four Maryland HBCU's,  Coppin State and Morgan State University in Baltimore, Bowie State University and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore joint forces and filed a lawsuit arguing that the State of Maryland was violating a 2000 civil rights agreement between the federal Office of Civil Rights and the State.
In late October 1999, the State of Maryland and the United States Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights (OCR), entered into a Partnership for the purposes of improving the educational opportunities for African Americans in Maryland's public institutions of higher education and ensuring compliance with the State’s obligations under federal law.  As part of the Partnership process, the State and OCR agreed to examine and address the status of African Americans regarding access, enrollment, retention, and graduation at the State’s public  institutions of higher education. (OCR plan)
That agreement essentially aimed to make HBCUs comparable to TWIs by, among other things, avoiding unnecessary program duplications.

The 2006 suit maintains that the Towson-UB program is such a duplication depriving Morgan State University of attracting white students to increase MSU's student diversity. Morgan State's share of African American students is 74.6%. In select programs such as Architecture the diversity is better with larger percentages of white students, a decided goal of the equity law suit.  Currently at Coppin State University (CSU) 81.9% of students are African American. At Towson University 18% of all students are black.
Morgan State new Business Center

The suit dragged on until 2013 when District Court Judge Catherine Blake determined, that the Maryland University System de jure continued to discriminate against HBCUs although she also determined at the time that there was no discrimination in the State's capital expenditures.  The court found that 60 percent of the non-core programs at Maryland’s historically black institutions were unnecessarily duplicated at the state’s traditionally white institutions, while TWIs had only 18 percent of their non-core programs replicated at other public schools. The judge ordered the parties to come up with a plan for remediation. State leaders pledged $10 million annually towards joint programs between HBCUs and TWIs but those remedial proposals were ultimately judged insufficient.
“..neither party’s remedy, as currently proposed, is practicable, educationally sound, and sufficient to address the segregative harms of program duplication.” (Judge Blake)
In 2016 Judge Blake rejected a submitted remediation plan and set a trial for 2017. After several hearings and delays the matter was heard this month again. The judge ruled that the State must establish a set of new, unique and high-demand programs at each of the historically black institutions. In an injunction the judge ordered  the State to appoint an independent monitor who oversees the implementation of educational programs and even has the power to provide certain funds over a period of 10 years. At the same time the judge did not require TWIs to transfer duplicative programs to HBCUs. It appears that this ruling ends the court case unless it is appealed.

Since 2006 the State has spent over $2.2. million defending itself in this case.

The roots of the case goes back all the way to the basic civil rights laws of 1964 and history before that. Maryland's HBCU's were founded in 1867 (Morgan) and 1900 (Coppin). While the basic issues remain the same, sociateal conditions and laws have changed. Even during the 11 year duration of this case in the courts the case lived through several shifts of view, including the Black Lives Matter movement and the heightened awareness of continued race discrimination exacerbated by the current administration, with the disputes about confederate monuments as a sidebar. It isn't easy to navigate the racially charged terrain of this particular case.

On the one side the desire to racially diversify both TWI's and HBCUs, on the other the stated purpose of HBCU's to provide safe and supportive places for black students. On the one side the cut-throat competition of private universities and on the other an attempt of public universities to keep up and at the same time keep tuition affordable. All of that in the international context of US slippage in education attainment, especially in STEM and in early childhood and primary education.
New STEM center at Coppin University in North Avenue

One of the defining differences between TWIs and HBCUs isn't part of the lawsuit: Not the racial demographics of the students but the threshold to get in. The admission standards of HBCUs are defined by the goal of providing access to the underprivileged.  In the effort of providing opportunities for students coming from disadvantaged communities, HBCU standards for admission are frequently quite low. The unintended consequences of these lower standards are not discussed in the judges findings but appear to hobble them more than duplicate programs. In a competitive environment low admission standards automatically lead to low application levels of students from areas of higher educational attainment and who a have higher GPAs and can get into a number of universities beyond HBCUs, regardless of ethnicity. Experts seem to agree, that low admission standards are a bad policy:
Tuskegee University founder, Booker T. Washington, internationally renowned sociologist, W. E. B. Dubois, along with leading civil rights activists and founder of Bethune-Cookman College, Mary McLeod Bethune, were among the most vocal proponents regarding the need for black colleges to establish and maintain high academic expectations. Charlie Nelms, Ed.DHigher Education Expert and Consultant.
Coppin University in Baltimore represents a drastic example of the vicious cycle resulting from lowering expectations. Located in West Baltimore, the University prides itself of providing unprecedented access for students and faculty of disadvantaged communities. Three-quarters of those who enroll at Coppin require academic remediation. At the same time the university has been battling with sinking enrollment for years. It has one of the worst graduation and retention rates in the entire nation (15-17% overall, the national average is 69%, 5.4% of first-time/full-time students). Partly as a result of the extremely small student body, with some professors teaching classes of two students. the State funding rate for Coppin per student is comparably high with $11,997 per student, while Towson students received less than half with $5,056 per student. (2010 numbers source). In spite of a lack of students, Coppin University received State funds to expanded its campus massively, including a large athletic facility, a state of the art student center and a brand-new complex of STEM buildings, for which the university has neither faculty nor students.  Morgan State also expanded also on a construction spree, just as most TWIs did.  But unlike Coppin, MSU managed to keep its enrollment relatively steady around 8000 students, whereas CSU's enrollment is only around 3,800 students, down from 4,306 in 2006. CSU ranks a dismal #50 among all HBCU's ranked by US News and World Report, MSU sits on place #16. Morgan appears to be on a path towards excellence under the leadership of its current dynamic president with increased grants and contracts, increased retention and graduation, and improved financial accountability.
Coppin State graduation rates (College Factual)

It remains to be seen how CSU will fare under the new management with a court ordered monitor overseeing program and fund allocations. It is clear that expenditures per student, additional programs or investment in campus construction by themselves do not represent a solution as several presidents of CSU have found out when trying to combat low enrollment and low graduation rates. MSU, by contrast, has combined investment with higher expectations of excellence which begins with the acceptance rate and doesn't end with realistic grades and standards.

The matter of Baltimore's HBCUs is not just something for lawyers and history geeks. Access and education opportunities for Baltimore's youth in disinvested communities is a direct indicator for Baltimore's future. The role of Baltimore's HBCUs in their community is of upmost relevance. A healthy Coppin University is key to the recovery of West Baltimore.

Finding the right balance between high standards and good access is a conundrum that puzzles not only universities but schools in general and is even a problem for employers and City agencies or the police depratment. If history is any guide, it shows that inequity and discrimination cannot simply be undone by opening access wide at the college level if  access isn't combined with early interventions during early childhood, school and potentially community college. Mayor Pugh's of tuition free access to BCCC is a good step, but it too needs to balanced with an expectation of high standards. In this sense, the HBCU case lands right in the middle of all of Baltimore's problems: Low expectations, low accountabibility and unwillingness to embrace change.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

HBCU connect
June 17 SUN
Feb 2017 Afro Timeline
Nov 17 Injunction  
Maryland Historically Black Colleges and Universities Litigation (Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights)

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