Lawsuit seeking to merge UB, Morgan State dismissed

Judge calls proposal “neither educationally sound nor practical”

A U.S. District Court judge has dismissed a 2007 lawsuit over duplication of degree programs, brought by a group of current and former students of Maryland’s Historically Black Universities (HBUs), against the Maryland Higher Education Commission and the former state Secretary of Higher Education. While not named as a defendant in the lawsuit, the University of Baltimore was mentioned several times in the plaintiffs’ arguments.

The Coalition For Equity and Excellence in Maryland Higher Education, a group composed of current and former students from Maryland’s four HBUs – Bowie State University in Prince George’s County, Coppin State University and Morgan State University in Baltimore, and the University of Maryland-Eastern Shore in Princess Anne (Somerset County) – filed the lawsuit on Dec. 31, 2007 in the U.S. District Court for Maryland. Joining the coalition as plaintiffs in the suit was a group of nine students from Morgan State and UMES. The Maryland Higher Education Commission (MHEC) and then-Chairman Kevin O’Keefe, along with James Lyons, the Secretary of Higher Education under former Gov. Martin O’Malley, were named as the defendants in the class-action suit.

The suit alleges that certain degree programs referred to as Predominantly White Institutions are duplicating what is offered at the Historically Black Universities, in violation of the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause, the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the 1992 Supreme Court decision in United States v. Fordice out of Mississippi. The plaintiffs also accused the state of failing to live up to its obligations in a 2000 agreement with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights to “enhance Maryland’s historically Black colleges and universities.” On Feb. 2, U.S. District Court Judge Catherine Blake dismissed the lawsuit, and ordered both sides to mediate out of court. Judge Blake ordered attorneys for each side to file proposals for remedies by Feb. 19. After that, she scheduled a conference call or a meeting in her chambers to discuss the schedule for a possible trial.

One of the remedies the Coalition proposed in its filing was for Morgan State to take over the University of Baltimore. UB President Kurt Schmoke says this proposal went beyond the focus of the lawsuit, which was the duplication of programs, in the view of Judge Blake.

“A proposal to merge two universities together, in her view, went beyond the narrow focus on program duplication. That was just an extreme response to the program duplication issue,” President Schmoke said. In her ruling, Judge Blake wrote that, “any numerical benefit as to the racial identifiability of the resulting student body would be outweighed by its academic and financial cost.”

“We were asked to submit an affidavit responding to the plaintiffs’ proposed remedies, and we showed how there would be a detrimental financial impact on the university by this merger,” President Schmoke said. “For example, the fact that we currently have a relationship with the UB Foundation, which is a separate nonprofit entity, which provides things like the Fund for Educational Excellence and it provides grants. If we were to merge into Morgan, the UB Foundation has no obligation to continue to support us. They are a separate entity, and so we would lose access to a foundation that has been working with us historically, providing substantial resources to faculty and students, and that would be a financial detriment to the university.”

Morgan State University has had a Master’s in Business Administration program since 1964. In 2005, the MHEC approved the UB/Towson MBA, which started in 2010. President Schmoke explained that the Morgan administrators’ argument wasn’t with UB, but instead with Towson getting an MBA. He said Morgan wanted business students who graduated from Towson to enroll at Morgan for its MBA program.

“The only way that the state allowed Towson to do that was to attach itself to the existing UB MBA program,” President Schmoke said. The plaintiffs cited the approval of the UB/Towson MBA as one of several examples going back to the late 1970s of the MHEC approving degree programs at PWI’s. These include the approval of the undergraduate marketing and exercise science programs in 2001, and the business program in 1978 at Salisbury University, which allegedly duplicated the programs offered at UMES. The graduate Public Health program at University of Maryland-Baltimore was approved in 2006, and the plaintiffs allege that program duplicates the program offered at Morgan State. However, President Schmoke described how UB has formed a partnership with Coppin State for a joint Master of Science program in Human Services Administration, a program that UB doesn’t offer on its own.

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