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HBCU Civil Rights Lawsuit

Written by Shernay Williams, from the AFRO-American newspapers on 02 June 2011.

"If you create a ballpark in a cornfield, it doesn't mean the baseball players will come," Assistant Attorney General Campbell Killefer recently told a federal court judge, in tones of disgust. Even if Maryland were to allocate additional funding to its four HBCUs, he implied, that wouldn't elevate their retention or graduation rates nor would it guarantee more diverse students would be attracted to the schools.

The attorney, who represents the Maryland Higher Education Commission, said he was appalled at the notion that "the state is supposed to allocate its scarce resources in a field of dreams."

Killefer had come before U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Blake to argue why the nearly five-year-old case against the state that alleges it underfunds HBCUs and allows duplicate programs at traditionally White institutions (TWIs) should be dismissed.

The state has filed a motion of summary judgment to have the entire case thrown out before it can head to a trial scheduled for next month.
Roughly 60 spectators crowded the courtroom to witness the two-and-a-half-hour long hearing, forcing a handful of attendees to sit in vacant juror seats.  Most were African Americans donning paraphernalia from the state's HBCUs—Coppin State University, Morgan State University, Bowie State University, and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore.

After Killefer argued his case on behalf of the state, two attorneys for the plaintiffs—the Coalition for Equity and Excellence in Higher Education and eight current students and alumni from Maryland HBCUs—countered why the case should stand trial.

The plaintiff's lawyers asserted that inequitable operational and capital projects funding coupled with duplication of specialty academic programs have widened the disparities between HBCUs and other Maryland schools.

They also contended that the state never lived up to a partnership agreement established in 2000 with the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights that demanded Maryland's HBCUs achieve parity in funding, facilities, and academic program development.

But, attorneys for the state argued that Maryland has "diligently performed its obligations" and "should be commended" for setting an "aspirational goal to make HBCUs comparable and competitive."

They said the plaintiffs cannot prove that the state has discriminatory practices traceable to the segregation era, and noted that the Office of Civil Rights, which monitors educational discrimination, has yet to side with the plaintiffs.

"OCR didn't seek to intervene; they didn't file a lawsuit," said Killefer.  "Over five years have passed with no activity from OCR.  How long is long enough that presumption is that the state is right?"

Insiders speculate that the federal agency decided against aligning with the plaintiffs for political reasons.

In veiled statements that seemed to question the need for HBCUs, Killefer argued that 59 percent of Maryland's Black students attend traditionally White institutions and in the past, the University of Maryland College Park offered scholarships for Blacks to attend the school.

Coalition attorney Karen Walker countered that "it is not enough to say you have race- neutral policies. The state has not satisfied its burden that it has dismantled the vestiges of segregation," she said.

Although several historically Black institutions have garnered additional state funding in recent years, the coalition's attorneys assert that the institutions have yet to receive enough resources to level the playing field and compete against TWIs after decades of scant funding.

"Even 25 years of favorable funding does not suffice to dismantle the dual system, if it does not yet allow the HBIs to provide an education today free of stigma of past discrimination," said Walker.
Their financial analyst estimates that upwards of $2 billion was collectively withheld from the state's HBCUs between 1984 and 2009.

Killefer discredited the expert, citing that he "may be clever but is intellectually dishonest" because he used outdated figures—from 2000 to 2005—to calculate the funding discrepancies.

Despite Killefer's feelings towards the expert, Walker said state funding levels are driven by admission, and schools boasting more sophisticated programs often receive more money, which poses a problem for HBCUs, who struggle to maintain unique, high-demand programs.

Supreme Court rulings have forced states to wipe out duplicate academic programs, which were rooted in the segregation era, but the plaintiffs' attorneys argue that the state has allowed TWIs to offer specialized programs that were unique to HBCUs.  It's caused Whites to leave Blacks schools to enroll in other institutions, exacerbating the lack of diversity at HBCUs.

According to coalition attorney John Greenbaum, HBCUs are more segregated today than they were in the 1970s.

"HBCUs cannot desegregate because they don't have unique programs, operation funding or the facilities to compete," he said.

As a prime example, attorneys pointed to a joint master's in business administration degree program established at Towson University and the University of Baltimore in 2005 that mirrors a Morgan State program.

Greenbaum said since desegregation, the state has opted to enrich younger schools, including Towson and UMBC, at faster rates than Blacks schools, allowing them to surpass HBCUs in resources, edifices, and enrollment.

"Yes, you've done something for HBCUs, but you have done more for the TWIs."

Killefer said the Towson program was the only program duplication instate in a 10-year span, adding that a "dramatically different and better Maryland exists than during segregation."

"Maryland is not Mississippi," he said roughly.  "It's not Alabama in the 1970s and '80s, and if the plaintiffs think that, they are drinking some kind of Kool Aid."
But, according to Greenbaum, "state action continues to foster all the elements that affect student choice and make students want to attend other schools."
Judge Blake said she will rule "as soon as possible" on whether the case should proceed before a jury.  With her say-so, a six-week trial would begin June 27.

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