A trial in a five-year-old lawsuit charging that Maryland has failed to eliminate the vestiges of racial discrimination in its higher education system got underway in federal district court this week.
The Coalition for Equity and Excellence in Maryland Higher Education, represented by Michael Jones of Kirkland & Ellis and Jon Greenbaum of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, is seeking more than $2 billion in funding for the state’s historically black universities and colleges (HBUCs) in order to achieve parity with the state’s traditionally white institution counterparts.
The suit is the first of its kind in the nation to go to trial in 16 years.
The lawsuit also seeks the upgrading of HBUCs’ campus facilities and educational programs, particularly the elimination of unnecessary program duplication.
Last year, U.S. District Judge Catherine Blake in Baltimore ordered the plaintiffs, who include alumni and students of HBCUs, and the defendant, the Maryland Higher Education Commission, to enter mediation in an attempt to settle the case. But the last round of mediation in November failed to resolve the issues and a Jan. 3 trial date was set.
“Given the state’s long history of segregation, the time has now come for them to answer the tough questions about why equitable funding, facilities and school programs for HBCUs have been largely ignored and what they plan to do about it,” said Jones, who with Greenbaum is handling the case pro bono, in a statement. “The decision could have a far-reaching impact throughout the country.”
Greenbaum noted that a Maryland blue ribbon commission in 2008 found that the state needed to invest substantial resources in its historically black institutions to overcome competitive disadvantages caused by prior discriminatory treatment.
“We request that the court order Maryland to provide its HBIs with sufficient funding and parity in mission, academic program offerings, library services and facilities, science labs and facilities, information technology infrastructure, and other facets of their operations, as compared to its traditionally white institutions,” Greenbaum added in a statement.
The Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights informed Maryland in 1969 and 1972 that its higher education system violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The state executed a series of desegregation plans with the last one expiring in 2005. The Coalition’s lawsuit was filed in 2006 after Maryland filed a report with the Office of Civil Rights in which it claimed full compliance with its last plan.
In an interview with The National Law Journal last year, Maryland Assistant Attorney General Anne Donahue said, “We have met our obligations to the federal government. Obviously that’s what the trial will determine.”
Leaders of historically black colleges and others have voiced increasing concerns that a number of states either are not meeting or are backsliding on their legal obligations to fully desegregate their higher education systems. Last year, the assistant secretary for civil rights within the Department of Education met with the presidents of historically black colleges in the six states currently subject to monitoring by the department’s Office for Civil Rights: Maryland, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida, Oklahoma and Texas.
The four Maryland HBCUs at the heart of the lawsuit are Morgan State University, Coppin State University, Bowie State University and the University of Maryland-Eastern Shore. Besides the Maryland Higher Education Commission defendants also include the state of Maryland and the secretary of Higher Education.
Kirkland’s Jones said the trial is expected to last approximately five weeks.