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What A $577 Million Settlement Will Mean For Maryland HBCUs

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It's been 15 years since a group of alumni from Maryland's historically Black colleges and universities sued the state over inequality in public higher education. Their lawsuit argued that the state had underfunded its four HBCUs and permitted traditionally white institutions to replicate programs pioneered and offered by HBCUs. After a series of legal fits and starts, including a stall in negotiations with the state, last week, Maryland finalized a $577 million settlement to resolve the issue. The money will be paid out over a decade and used to support scholarships, faculty recruitment and expand academic programs and marketing.

We wanted to hear more about this historic settlement and what it means for Maryland's HBCUs, so we called Danielle Douglas-Gabriel. She covers the economics of higher education for The Washington Post, and she's with us now. Welcome, Danielle Douglas-Gabriel. Thanks so much for joining us.

DANIELLE DOUGLAS-GABRIEL: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So before we get into the specifics of the settlement, I'm not sure that everybody's familiar with the background of the lawsuit or the history of HBCUs in Maryland. So could you just walk us through, as briefly as you can, the history of this issue? And which universities are we talking about?

DOUGLAS-GABRIEL: Sure. So Maryland has - four of its 13 public universities are historically Black institutions, meaning they were founded at a time where segregation was legal. And these schools include Morgan State University, Coppin State University, Bowie State University and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore. Each of these schools are roughly under 8,000 students. Morgan is the largest of the four and the only one that is a research university. And it has been competing with many of the other schools within the Maryland system in order to continue to expand its research capabilities and hasn't had much support of the state. And that's kind of what is the underlying issue at the heart of this lawsuit. But do understand that this lawsuit comes out of kind of generations of alumni and administration at these schools pleading with the state to provide more resources and never really fully being successful at that.

MARTIN: Well, you know, one of the compelling things about the lawsuit is that they argue that they pioneered some of the ideas that these other institutions - better funded, more powerful, you know, more influential, more visible - then essentially copied and then used that sort of visibility to draw resources away from these institutions. And I think that's not an argument that many people have heard before. I just wondered if there's an example that you could cite.

DOUGLAS-GABRIEL: Sure. So there was a 2005 decision by Maryland's Higher Education Commission to approve a joint MBA program. And this MBA program that the state was doing really well with was at Morgan State, but the Higher Education Commission decided to allow the University of Baltimore and Towson University to create this joint program. Both of those schools have far more resources than Morgan State, so certainly that program would have peeled off many of the students that Morgan State was really successful in bringing to their campus. So eventually, you know, the joint degree was scrapped. But the case and the event became very emblematic of this kind of lasting legacy of segregation in Maryland's higher education system.

MARTIN: So what do you think these institutions will do with the money? What do you think it'll mean to them?

DOUGLAS-GABRIEL: I think there are a couple of things it'd mean. Look at Morgan, for instance. Morgan has been trying its best to really kind of burnish its brand as the state research university, and these funds would allow it to do so. It certainly would allow it to build newer facilities. Other schools, I think it's also a matter of really supporting their students financially. I mean, HBCUs across the country have a tendency of bringing in low-income students. And so these kinds of funds allow them to support scholarships. It allows them to have better facilities, attract better faculty, help with the training, all the things that the state probably should have been doing all along but now is making a real commitment to do.

MARTIN: You noted at the outset of our conversation that these institutions were founded at a time when segregation was legal. It was the law of the land. It was certainly the law and the custom of the state, OK? So I think there are those who still wonder, well, why is there still a need for these institutions if segregation is no longer legal?

DOUGLAS-GABRIEL: There is a cultural and kind of mission as well as legacy at a lot of historically Black schools that Black students still want and Black families still want. The idea of having the comfort of not always having to explain yourself, the idea of having the comfort of professors who look like you, who really have your best interests at heart and who you feel comfortable with is valuable. It is valuable because the education is - can be equally as good as you'd find at any predominantly white institution.

The issue here, and I think we're starting to have real, meaningful discussions around this, is that these schools have been underfunded. They have been underfunded by their states for the public ones. They've been underinvested by the federal government if you think of the research ones and the kinds of grants that they have been afforded. And it's just not comparable to other schools.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, have you had a chance to talk to any of the people who brought this suit back in 2006? What do they say? How do they feel?

DOUGLAS-GABRIEL: I mean, they're happy and they're - that this is finally coming to a close. But they're also - I wouldn't say angry. I think they're just a bit saddened by the fact that it took this. You know, this case went through several administrations. There were Democrats, there were Republicans who sat in in Hogan's seat and decided not to settle this case and came back with what many of the folks, the alumni, considered to be low-ball offers, even as they recognize and acknowledge that, yes, the state had systematically underfunded and created a disparity within their public university system.

And, you know, I think one of the people who I spoke to was actually a former president of Morgan State who had said, you know, we had cajoled. We had fought. We had pleaded. We thought performing really well - all of these things would help the state to realize that we were worth the investment. And yet it never materialized. And it took us suing in order to get any recognition of the work that we did to contribute to Maryland.

MARTIN: Yeah. That sounds bittersweet, a sense of opportunities lost. You know, certainly opportunity gained for the next generation, but there has to be a sort of a bittersweet feeling about this.

Well, that was Danielle Douglas-Gabriel. She covers the economics of higher education for The Washington Post. Danielle, thanks so much for talking with us.

DOUGLAS-GABRIEL: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.