State of Maryland Argues to Keep HBCUs as Second-Class Institutions in Federal Lawsuit

Jeff Selingo is a professor at Arizona State University and a regular higher education columnist for the Washington Post. He regularly writes about the changing culture of higher education, specifically, the need for America to reduce its number of colleges in the name of improving access to its elite, high-performing institutions.

His latest piece compares the nation’s higher education culture to that of Canada’s, which focuses its resources into a smaller number of institutions, but enrolls hundreds of thousands of students.

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One graph from his piece stands out from the rest, and speaks to a disturbing past involving HBCUs, and a horrifying future for these institutions.

In the 1950s, for instance, a task force in Florida concluded that the state would need to accommodate three times the number of students within two decades. It predicted the state’s three existing institutions would need to double their enrollment to 40,000 students.

The projections alarmed members of the task force. How could the University of Florida, Florida State University, and Florida A&M University grow quickly in “so short a time without some jeopardy to the quality of programs?” In the minds of the task-force members, there was a limit to the size of a public university and they were quickly on their way to reaching it.

What’s most striking about this statement is not just that Florida A&M was once one of the state’s largest institutions. It is that the state dramatically expanded two of its PWIs and marginalized FAMU with politicized leadership at board levels, competition from community colleges and new four-year institutions, and most recently, performance-based funding models, in the name of meeting a rush of citizens seeking higher education.

This model has played out in HBCU states throughout the country, and in Maryland, a federal court is determining the best ways to equalize its four public black colleges with its predominantly white institutions.

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The state has wagered that years of neglect and willful harm will simply be too costly to reverse, and disruptive to scores of black students currently enrolled in PWIs. Fortunately, constitutional law is not constructed or interpreted around ideas of costliness or inconvenience; and in the cases preceding Maryland’s HBCU litigation, states like Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee were only able expand their black colleges through forced legal intervention.

And Maryland has outpaced them all in its persistent neglect of black colleges.

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This case has tremendous implications for public HBCUs throughout the country, and other alumni have taken notice. Black college alumni in Pennsylvania and South Carolina have filed similar lawsuits, hoping to find some protection for Cheyney and South Carolina State, which have endured similar disparities in funding and program duplication.

Other states could follow the Maryland example, as projected in a 2015 analysis from the Southern Education Foundation.

As precedent is set requiring funding equity for HBCUs and Black students, coalitions representing HBCUs in other states may continue to bring lawsuits aimed at funding and program equity in their states as well, as we see in South Carolina. Maryland HBCUs can only hope that the precedent set in United States v. Fordice, 1992 leads to a promising mediation or future ruling in their favor, where the State of Maryland addresses and remedies each constitutional violation cited by Judge Blake.

The State of Maryland, and even some black students, graduates and officials from these schools believe that the state is better off with larger institutions enrolling diverse student bodies and a wide range of degree programs. And they are correct; but the question is why they, and so many others can’t visualize HBCUs as these schools?

That lack of vision, and defense of the racist culture which breeds it, is exactly what makes Maryland guilty. And exactly why much more is at stake in the case against the state, and the nation’s view of its invaluable HBCUs.