03/25/2014 02:54 pm ET Updated May 25, 2014

Maryland Running Out of Bets to Place on Unlawful HBCU Neglect

In a few months, doors will open wide to new casinos in Baltimore's Inner Harbor and Prince George's National Harbor. They will bring the state to a grand total of six gaming playgrounds, with promises of billions in tax and revenues coming to the state to benefit Maryland's citizens through education and economic development.

During that same period, the two sides of Maryland's historic legal battle over race-based discrimination against its public historically black colleges and universities will reach a conclusion in mediation. The state will decide to either transfer duplicated programs at predominantly white institutions (PWIs) to irreparably harmed HBCUs, or they will take their chances in court with Federal Judge Catherine Blake, who in her October 2013 decision wrote that the transfer or merger of these programs to HBCUs would likely be "necessary" to remedy the state's separate-but-equal system of higher education.

Recent stakeholder rhetoric would indicate that Maryland is prepared to dig in for a long road of mediation, or appeals in federal court.

Universities may move to protect their existing programs and interests, but [University System of Maryland Senior Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs Joann A.] Boughman hopes that many programs can be enhanced or shared between colleges and that the university system as a whole can benefit.

Boughman said new programs can cost millions of dollars as new faculty are hired and other infrastructure is put in place. While launching combined programs also can be tricky, she said that's being considered.

"Part of our hope is that we can develop enough win-wins where we do not have to end up in a place where anyone ends up losing," she said.

Losing has been the hallmark of HBCU development in Maryland over generations, and a hallmark that has benefited the state's public PWIs as a result. The University of Maryland-Baltimore County, Towson University and Salisbury University have grown in profile and academic offering through the duplication of key programs at Bowie State University, Morgan State University and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore. It is a sharp contrast for a state known for a strong liberal base and elite corps of black state and federal political figures.

Over the years, Maryland has gambled and won big on citizens and higher education advocates ignoring the prevalent maladies it has caused to its own historically black colleges. It wagered that no one would ever pay attention to a 2000 order from the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights, ordering the state to desegregate its system of higher education and to dismantle duplication.

It gambled in the early 1980s, when state officials split engineering offerings between Morgan State and UMBC. More than a decade later, Maryland upped the ante when it duplicated electrical engineering between the same two schools.

Its most notable bet in recent memory came in 2005, when the state duplicated an existing MBA program at Morgan State University to create a similar joint program at Towson and the University of Baltimore, both less than five miles away from the Morgan campus.

When outright lawbreaking failed, the state began to bet on black. UMBC President Freeman Hrabowski suddenly emerged as one of the nation's great presidents, lauded for black male achievement programs established at his school that he learned as an undergraduate and administrator at several HBCUs, including Coppin State College. 

It bet on the consistent appointment of black secretaries of higher education, namely, current University of the District of Columbia Interim President James Lyons and former Coppin State President Calvin Burnett, serving as effective masking agents for efforts to submerge and undermine the effectiveness of its HBCUs through underfunding and program duplication.

When black faces and voices supporting HBCU antagonism didn't work, Maryland bet on focusing attention on the HBCU campuses. It bet that enough Maryland residents, particularly black residents, would attribute the failures of Coppin State University on its own internal misfortunes, sufficiently casting attention away from the state's outright funding and development neglect for the West Baltimore campus. Maryland bet that showcasing HBCU-PWI collaboration would ease tensions over stolen programs and withheld funding.

But even within the most surface ideals of collaboration, the painful effects of segregation and neglect are ever present for HBCU students and graduates.

When blaming HBCUs stopped working, the state started betting on the power of its legislative muscle. Now, white legislators are pitted against black legislators in the fight to protect and grow HBCUs, with black legislators on the side of HBCU expansion. Neither side intends to back down.

The lawsuit and resulting victory for the Coalition for Equity and Excellence in Maryland Higher Education has brought a national spotlight to the state's outright disdain towards HBCUs, their students, graduates and executives, and should make all HBCU supporters nationwide cast a closer eye towards Maryland as a litmus for how to bring attention and resolution to HBCU disparities.

Despite deliberate efforts to hide its intent and actions, Maryland's true colors are always most visible when the state begins to paint with a broad black brush. Among its latest efforts to show a more diverse and equitable system, the USM is currently and aggressively searching to recruit an African-American as the next president of the University of Baltimore, one of the key institutions named in the lawsuit as a hub of HBCU program duplication and redirected funding in harm to HBCUs.

It is clear that Maryland has a race problem when it comes to higher education. But at a time when political and economic agendas intermingle with the handling of this litigation, the last thing Maryland wants to be known for is its real problem when it comes to supporting citizens of all races; a gambling problem that can only be cured with judicial intervention.