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Maryland ruling could impact NC's HBCUs

Maryland’s four public historically black colleges and universities won a major federal court battle last week, with a ruling that the state’s management of higher education was preventing the HBCUs from diversifying.

A federal judge concluded that the state was unnecessarily duplicating HBCU degree programs at traditionally white schools, making it hard for the HBCUs to attract a more diverse student body — a decision that could have implications for North Carolina’s five public HBCUs.

The plaintiffs, including alumni of Maryland’s HBCUs, sued on the grounds that the state had underfunded and duplicated unique programs at HBCUs.

John Brittain, a member of the chief legal council for the plaintiffs, said the schools’ mission to provide access to higher education for poor and minority students places a higher financial burden on HBCUs than traditionally white institutions.

But the court did not award monetary damages to the HBCUs, and instead ordered that they work to reach a settlement with the state of Maryland as to which programs will be unique to HBCUs and to resolve any funding discrepancies.

Johnny Taylor, president of the Thurgood Marshall Fund, a national advocate for public HBCUs, said diversification of HBCUs is critical to their future prosperity.

“Graduates are going on to internationally diverse workplaces, and not being part of a diverse campus potentially places an alum at a disadvantage,” he said.

Brittain said the case would influence state university systems to offer more unique programs at HBCUs, making them more attractive to non-minority students.

“This remedy will provide HBCUs with more opportunities to create degrees that will attract a diverse population,” he said.

The UNC system includes five historically black campuses — N.C. Agricultural & Technical State University, N.C. Central University, Winston Salem State University, Fayetteville State University and Elizabeth City State University — and a minority institution created to serve Lumbee Indians, UNC-Pembroke.

“I think it’s going to require the university system to look and see if it is vulnerable to this sort of challenge,” said Wendy Scott, a NCCU law professor.

“The state has to be careful during a time when budget cuts are affecting the state’s HBCUs that there isn’t separate but unequal treatment.”

Due to the legacy of segregation, public HBCUs in North Carolina — which are significantly smaller, in both population and endowments, than their traditionally white counterparts — are disproportionately taking the brunt of budget cuts, said Scott.

“In North Carolina, there are some similarities and differences to the Maryland case,” Brittain said. “I would have to wait for a study, but if I use history of discrimination in black higher education as a guide, then North Carolina is certainly ripe for litigation.”

But Charles Daye, a UNC-CH law professor, said he thinks it is unlikely that litigation would occur.

“Of course anyone could start a lawsuit, but those are expensive, time-consuming and inconclusive,” he said.

If the state of Maryland and the HBCUs cannot come to a resolution, then the case will move to the fourth circuit court of appeals.

Since that court serves Maryland and North Carolina, Daye said, any decision would apply to North Carolina’s HBCUs.

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