Last May, Morgan State University President David Wilson faced internal and public scrutiny over his plans to develop shared programs with Towson University, less than seven months after federal court judge Catherine Blake ruled that merger and transfer were necessary elements in dismantling the state’s ‘separate-but-equal’ system of higher ed.
The plans were a frightening look into the future, as they mirror the state’s recent proposal to dismantle the racially biased system through collaborative degree offerings with predominantly white institutions and summer programs for HBCUs.
Fortunately, this lawsuit and its impact on the nation’s higher education landscape are bigger than Wilson, bigger than Morgan State and bigger than Maryland itself. It is about the role and rule of law, and how law supersedes the racial, political and economic comfort of maintaining the status quo.
One thing HBCU communities can know for sure; whomever and whatever the state promotes cannot be, by legislative intent and social design, inherently good for HBCUs or the people they serve. So it is no great surprise that Wilson, whose administration at Morgan has become a national poster child for the results of HBCU board dysfunction and campus violence is now being hyped as the model HBCU president to bring innovation and post-racial partnership between black and white schools.
Maryland seems locked in an era long gone, and proven obsolete by judicial intervention. The uprising of black students at PWIs throughout the state and nation shows just how bad and how long disparities have played out, even under the auspices of diversity building. And while the city simultaneously works to fight and pray at the beginnings of the trials of officers accused in the murder of Freddie Gray, Wilson continues to emphasize Morgan as a global institution, while distancing the institution and its legacy of civil rights advocacy away from Baltimore’s struggle for social justice.
Wilson’s work is a reflection of Maryland’s schizophrenic approach to racial progress on its campuses. In two weeks time, Maryland’s flagship institution erects a statue honoring native freedom fighter and statesman Frederick Douglass, in the shadows of a football stadium named for a known racist in Curley Byrd. Meanwhile, state higher education officials are in court and in the press suggesting that legitimate HBCU development is counterproductive to what is best for Maryland and all of its students, regardless of race.
Maryland’s stubbornness and covert efforts to stunt HBCU growth is counterproductive to a slow-moving trend throughout the south to expand HBCUs, either through judicial force or social prudence. A federal court forced Tennessee to merge the predominantly white University of Tennessee-Nashville into historically black Tennessee State University in 1979, and the result has helped to create a racially-inclusive flagship for the city, with comprehensive offerings and expanding value to Nashville’s industrial output.
The merger of Darton State College into Albany State University will soon create a flagship for Georgia’s southwestern region, ahead of a racially-charged federal lawsuit, and ahead of the uncomfortable discovery just how many billions were diverted away from Georgia’s public black colleges in less-progressive past generations. Georgia understands that the maintenance of one quality institution is more cost-efficient, culturally tolerant and socially healthy than duplicative offerings among proximate black and white institutions. It is the same principle advanced in broader societal terms during the abolitionist period and during the Civil Rights era of the 1960's.
But Maryland believes that through Wilson and his role as Morgan president, it can spread a message of partnership and concession while avoiding responsibility for the segregation that unlawfully set its HBCUs on a path of second-class existence for generations. It is the same philosophy he held as an “expert” witness in the federal Knight vs. Alabama case, in which he advocated for greater diversity at Alabama PWIs against development of Alabama A&M University and Alabama State University. And because he is black and leads a black school, Maryland believes its black citizenry to be incapable of seeing through its game of race-based peekaboo on policy and costs associated with transfer and merger into its four HBCUs.
Maryland should know that its students and families deserve better than that, and not just because black lives matter. But because the law matters, and it matters most when it has been broken and the time has come to make good on the consequences for doing so.