Maryland $577 Million HBCU Lawsuit Settlement Bill May Be Voided as Mediation Deadline Looms

A landmark $577 million settlement of a federal lawsuit filed by students and alumni of Maryland’s four historically Black colleges and universities may be voided if the State of Maryland can’t reach a mediated agreement with the plaintiffs ahead of a June 11 deadline.

According to the terms of the bill, the 10-year plan to increase funding to Bowie State University, Coppin State University, Morgan State University and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore to establish new and exclusive academic programs is conditional upon both sides of the lawsuit agreeing to terms on how the state will end decades-long practices of duplicating programs at the HBCUs and launching them at predominantly white institutions in the state.

From a March report issued by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law:

The legislation is designed to bring an end to a long-running case, The Coalition for Equity and Excellence in Maryland Higher Education Inc., et al. vs. Maryland Higher Education Commission, et al., a 2006 case which was brought by students and alumni of the state’s four HBCUs – Morgan State University, Coppin State University, Bowie State University, and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore. The legislation provides that the release of the $577 million in supplemental funding, which will be allocated over 10 years, is contingent on the parties in the lawsuit settling the case by June 1, 2021 and receiving court approval of the settlement by June 11, 2021. The plaintiffs in the lawsuit had proved to the federal district court that Maryland violated the U.S. Constitution by failing to educationally enhance the programmatic offerings of its HBCUs in a manner that would allow them to be comparable and competitive with the state’s majority white institutions.

In 2013, federal judge Catherine C. Blake found that the state willfully ignored a federal agreement to stop the unconstitutional duplication of programs which created a dual system of higher education for Black and white students within its public institutions.

The two sides spent six years in mediation for a settlement without success. In 2019, Maryland lawmakers proposed and passed with near-unanimous consent a bill in 2020 to resolve the matter, which was vetoed by Maryland Governor Larry Hogan citing the economic downturn associated with the coronavirus global pandemic.

The bill was reintroduced this year and signed last month, but advocates for the lawsuit warn that state legal officials may be intentionally running out the clock on meeting the requirements of the legislation.

“Additionally, the attorney general objects to the case remaining under the jurisdiction of the court, meaning any breach of the agreement by the State could be both difficult and expensive to litigate,” supporters said in an email to the HBCU Digest. “This is particularly troubling given Maryland’s history of forfeiting previous agreements with the U.S. Office of Civil Rights for addressing many of the grievances at issue in the [Coalition for Equity and Excellence in Maryland Higher Education] lawsuit. To add insult to injury, he continues to make unreasonable demands for documents related to the payment of legal fees to Coalition attorneys despite having drawn the case out for approximately 15 years.”

Supporters of the coalition are calling for mass letter-writing campaigns and rallies by civil rights groups and other supporters nationwide to bring attention to the potential of the lawsuit settlement being voided.