Can Maryland HBCUs Survive the State’s Higher Ed Mess?

University System of Maryland Chancellor Robert Caret will step down from his post next year, following months of criticism for the handling of a University of Maryland football player death and ethics questions concerning his discipline of employees and soliciting financial support for a system donor.

His departure after just four years at the helm comes as the system continues to plod towards a reckoning in its federal legal fight against stakeholders from Bowie State University, Coppin State University, Morgan State University and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore.

Six years ago, federal judge Catherine C. Blake ruled that the state had willfully and illegally created a racially segregated system of higher education by offering duplicated programs at the four HBCUs and proximate predominantly white institutions throughout the state, in addition to purposefully withholding competitive programs from the black colleges.

A classic example of such duplication was an MBA launched by Caret when he was president of Towson University. That duplication triggered the HBCU Coalition suit against the state of Maryland in 2006, after this and other similar efforts had stunted enrollment and growth at the HBCUs for generations, while Maryland’s public system of colleges and universities evolved into one of the fastest growing in the country.

Maryland higher education has long been a ship headed straight towards a hurricane in the form of a lawsuit, and now a mediation that will likely cost the state billions of dollars to remedy the discrimination which Blake classified as worse than that in Jim Crow Mississippi. And now that ship has lost its leader in the midst of faltering confidence among the state’s board of regents, controversy at its flagship, and an outright lack of productivity from the chancellor’s office.

The failings of the Maryland system pale in comparison to what should be its top priority; building comparability and competitiveness between its predominantly white institutions and its illegally-harmed HBCUs. The USM should be reaching to find ways to create new and cutting-edge programs at HBCUs, supported by innovative formulas for student financial aid, public-private partnerships to ensure the sustainability of the schools through endowment growth and philanthropy, and new oversight standards to guarantee HBCUs are never again harmed in such a nefarious way.

Instead, the state has attempted workarounds. A few new buildings at the campuses. Retirements at three of the four HBCUs to inject excitement for new faces in leadership (which also come with a lack of knowledge or perspective on the HBCU lawsuit).

A new bill which gives tax credits to prospective HBCU donors, but which limits the gifts to roughly $1 million. Ongoing anxiety about the system’s intense focus on development in Baltimore City, at the neglect of the UMD College Park campus which is facing rising racial tension of its own.

Maryland is quietly facing a growing crisis in its public higher education system. Advocates need to ensure that these recent storms don’t wash away concern or action for its biggest issue — the man-made hell the state has forced upon its HBCUs for generations.

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