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A civil rights group is suing Maryland’s Higher Education Commission for allegedly discriminating against the state’s four historically black colleges. The plaintiffs argue that Morgan State University, Coppin State University, Bowie State University and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore have underdeveloped programs because black schools are funded in a manner that puts predominately white schools at a huge advantage. Administrators at Maryland HBCUs believe their institutions are deprived of the tools needed to create competitive curricula, while being forced to wait much longer to receive appropriated monies. The results are outdated infrastructures and inferior courses leading to low student retention. The Baltimore Sun reports that: “Parity among higher-education institutions has been an issue in the state and country for centuries, and the lawsuit recounts 200 years of [racist] history[.]”

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Assistant Attorney General Campbell Killifer, while representing the Maryland Higher Education Commission, argued that the state should be let off the hook for the continuing disparities between traditionally black colleges and predominantly white schools. While Maryland has admitted to practicing discrimination in the past, state leadership maintains that it has addressed this issue sufficiently to level the playing field completely and that any differences in quality that continue must be due to other factors. Killifer seeks to shift the burden of proof for the accusation of racism to the struggling black organizations crying out for solutions to persistent inequalities.

The Consumerist Blog has spawned an interesting debate about this fight. Some readers are appalled that Maryland will not investigate whether discriminatory practices might still be taking place. Others contend that the decline of these HBCUs marks the moment for all black colleges’ timely demise. The relatively successful integration of elite universities like Harvard does de-emphasize the urgency of the HBCU’s original purpose. Plus, if even the administrators of Maryland’s black colleges admit that neighboring institutions are better, college bound African-American students could be harming their prospects by “going black.”

The benefits of attending an HBCU depend on one’s field of interest. Studies show black students do better in math and technology when they attend African-American establishments, and that HBCUs graduate a significant percentage of our nation’s black scientists – and political leaders. At a time when we need to see more of our youth move into the sciences, and leadership in our community is in crisis, these points are vital to consider.  But for the general job market, the economic benefit of attending an HBCU is non-existent. Attending a predominantly white school helps blacks earn 20% more than those graduating from HBCUs. This fact could account for the steady decline in HBCU attendance.

There are also internal reasons these schools are besieged. Dr. Boyce Watkins, writing on Thy Black Man, makes some interesting arguments:

We must also confess to the possibility that our HBCUs are not being run nearly as efficiently as they could be.  During a visit to The University of North Carolina Central and Howard University, I was shocked at how reluctant many HBCUs are to hire African American male faculty, particularly in business and the sciences.  According to a survey among readers of, over 40% of HBCU grads had less than five African American professors in fields outside of African American studies.  Many HBCUs are flush with foreign professors, some of whom either don’t care much about the black kids and/or collude to only hire faculty from their home countries.  This leaves our children without a sufficient number of classroom role models as they navigate their way to graduation.

There are also many stories about HBCU inefficiency as it pertains to financial aid, admissions and even hiring.  Many of these problems can be traced to inadequate funding, but some should be connected to the archaic and dysfunctional manner by which some of us choose to lead our institutions. The old school models of leadership for HBCUs should be forced out by those who care about our children’s futures.

The battle between the state of Maryland and its historically black colleges raises many grave questions.  The few benefits of attending HBCUs might not outweigh the tremendous costs to students who are not considering politics or a scientific career. While the plight of these black Maryland educators is unfair, it is alarming that the mismanagement of black schools has not been addressed as a contributing problem, even though scandals have rocked many HBCUs in recent years. The issues weighing on these bodies is rendering historically black colleges and universities nearly obsolete.

No infusion of cash can compensate for the tremendous challenges HBCUs face on many fronts. These complex tests can only be addressed by the creativity of their leaders. Hopefully the situation of Maryland’s HBCUs will stimulate black college administrators nationwide to start an internal crusade to keep these organizations alive.

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