A few weeks ago, the University of Maryland Eastern Shore held graduation exercises for its physical therapy program, with 29 new doctoral students entering a vibrant workforce with growth potential in the region and throughout the state. Racially, the graduating class breaks down to 23 white, five African-American and one Asian-American new alumni with terminal credentials in the field, a trend that has held at UMES since the early 1980s with the program was first approved as one of only two physical therapy doctoral programs in Maryland.
This matters beyond notions of HBCUs being diverse campuses with competitive programs ready to meet workforce demands – it speaks to the core of what plaintiffs in the state’s landmark HBCU desegregation case have been arguing throughout more than 11 years of mediation and litigation.
The State of Maryland has been found guilty of being one of America’s most prolific violators of constitutional law through maintaining a dual system of education for black and white students. By duplicating programs between historically black and predominantly white institutions, and building up schools like the University of Maryland Baltimore County and the University of Baltimore, US Federal Judge Catherine Blake has ruled that Maryland has specifically driven enrollment away from its four public HBCUs and prevented them from growing in research and outreach.
She is expected to rule on a remedy for the HBCUs in the coming weeks, with some experts predicting a shift in programs and resources which could cost the state government billions.
UMES’ physical therapy is one of the handful of exceptions among programs that are nearly exclusive at HBCUs, which results in a more diverse student body and higher exposure among donors, corporations and state lawmakers for budget support.
But pro-state experts and state officials have argued, even after a courtroom defeat, that making programs unique to HBCUs will do nothing to convince white students to attend.
They’ve planted actions within HBCUs. In 2015, Morgan State University regents scrapped plans from President David Wilson to create partnerships with Towson University which many observers believe would’ve opened the door to additional program duplication.
Similar efforts have been launched at Coppin State University, in conjunction with schools long-positioned to absorb the HBCU in the name of enhanced savings for taxpayers and revitalization of the western part of Baltimore City.
And a startling majority of black legislators in Maryland have remained silent on the lawsuit and its implications for community development and opportunities for black students.
But with all of these challenges, Coppin State, Morgan State, Bowie State and UMES continue to show that exclusivity in programs can build the kind of diversity that most racists and or anti-HBCU activists believe is only possible at PWIs. Beyond Maryland, it is the kind of example necessary for states like Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Missouri, Tennessee, North and South Carolina to use in legislative lobbying, and for alumni and students to consider in potential litigation against the states for duplicating programs and disparately cutting resources from public HBCUs.
This is why HBCUs are aggressively pursuing white students – not just to make up for the black students who refuse to enroll at black colleges, but to demonstrate that diversity and competitiveness are not exclusive to PWIs. The more diverse that HBCU campuses can become with white and international students of color, the more resources they can demand to meet the needs of diversity; including scholarships, programs, technology, housing, and personnel.
Many students and alumni have a problem with this reality. But until more black students realize or are convinced of HBCU value, we need to get over a strategy that PWIs have used for years to monopolize black student enrollment while HBCUs, institutionally, have suffered.
After all – black students at PWIs are starting to realize the impact of the inequity, but we still need their money to make the biggest difference.
The last thing any state government wants is a productive HBCU forcing its hand in cutting checks and celebrating success. UMES is forcing that hand, and it could force a change in history with Maryland’s racist, illegal record of segregation against its black colleges.