HBCUs seek $577 mil­lion to drop suit

Coali­tion wants 13-year-old case against the state set­tled

Baltimore Sun - - FRONT PAGE - By Talia Rich­man

A coali­tion ad­vo­cat­ing for Mary­land’s four his­tor­i­cally black uni­ver­si­ties sent a let­ter to elected of­fi­cials Tues­day of­fer­ing to set­tle its 13-year-old law­suit against the state for $577 mil­lion — more than five times the gov­er­nor’s last pub­lic of­fer.

That fig­ure is less than Mis­sis­sippi paid in a sim­i­lar law­suit, when ac­count­ing for in­fla­tion, coali­tion at­tor­ney Mike Jones said. In 2002, Mis­sis­sippi paid more than $500 mil­lion to set­tle its land­mark Ay­ers case, which suc­cess­fully ar­gued the state had de­nied black res­i­dents equal ed­u­ca­tion op­por­tu­ni­ties by dis­crim­i­nat­ing against its three HBCUs.

Ad­vo­cates call Mary­land’s drawn-out le­gal bat­tle the most im­por­tant higher ed­u­ca­tion de­seg­re­ga­tion case in decades. It hinges on the claim that state’s univer­sity sys­tem long fos­tered seg­re­ga­tion by al­low­ing well-funded aca­demic pro­grams at tra­di­tion­ally white uni­ver­si­ties to un­der­mine sim­i­lar ones at Mor­gan State Univer­sity and Cop­pin State Univer­sity in Bal­ti­more, Bowie State Univer­sity and the Univer­sity of Mary­land, East­ern Shore.

De­spite a 2013 court de­ci­sion find­ing that Mary­land’s ac­tions in­deed per­pet­u­ated

seg­re­ga­tion — and a 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Ap­peals rul­ing that stated the case “can and should be set­tled” — the two sides have strug­gled to reach a remedy. The lat­est round of court-or­dered me­di­a­tion ended in July, with­out a res­o­lu­tion.

The coali­tion sent a let­ter Tues­day to mem­bers of the Mary­land Gen­eral As­sem­bly and the state’s con­gres­sional del­e­ga­tion, propos­ing the state pay $577 mil­lion, “spread over a rea­son­able time pe­riod.”

“Hope­fully, this will start up the dis­cus­sion again,” Jones said.

If the par­ties can’t reach an agree­ment, the case’s fu­ture lies with the fed­eral ap­peals court.

Del. Darryl Barnes, chair­man of the Leg­isla­tive Black Caucus, called the coali­tion’s pro­posal both “doable” and “fair.”

The Prince George’s County Demo­crat says he will ask mem­bers of his caucus, the state Se­nate pres­i­dent, state House speaker and rep­re­sen­ta­tives from the gov­er­nor’s of­fice to gather and “fig­ure out how we’re go­ing to come to this num­ber and set­tle it.”

The coali­tion of HBCU ad­vo­cates be­lieve past of­fers to be in­suf­fi­cient, say­ing it would take sev­eral hun­dred mil­lion dol­lars to make substantia­l change.

The money would en­able HBCUs to de­velop unique, in-de­mand aca­demic pro­grams at each of the four HBCUs and to hire qual­ity fac­ulty mem­bers to run those pro­grams. Only then, lawyers ar­gue, will th­ese schools be able to fairly com­pete with tra­di­tion­ally white schools and at­tract stu­dents of all races. In ad­di­tion, the let­ter states, the money would be de­voted to pro­vid­ing more schol­ar­ships and ramp­ing up mar­ket­ing ef­forts “to off­set the state’s decades of stigma­ti­za­tion of the HBCUs.”

“Now is the time to bring jus­tice to Mary­land’s black col­leges,” Jones wrote.

Gov. Larry Ho­gan, a Repub­li­can, in­di­cated last year he’s open to spend­ing up to $100 mil­lion over a 10-year pe­riod to set­tle the law­suit. Robert Scholz, the gov­er­nor’s le­gal coun­sel, wrote in a Fe­bru­ary 2018 let­ter to the Leg­isla­tive Black Caucus that that of­fer rep­re­sented “a se­ri­ous, mul­ti­year com­mit­ment which we be­lieves goes well be­yond what the law re­quires.”

“Gov­er­nor Ho­gan wants to bring this lit­i­ga­tion to an end in a man­ner sat­is­fac­tory to all par­ties, and in the best in­ter­ests of all Mary­lan­ders, es­pe­cially cur­rent and fu­ture HBI stu­dents,” Scholz wrote.

Any other of­fers from the state would have been made dur­ing con­fi­den­tial me­di­a­tion ses­sions.

“We ne­go­ti­ated in good faith, mak­ing a gen­er­ous of­fer and dra­mat­i­cally in­creas­ing that of­fer,” Ho­gan spokesman Michael Ricci said in a state­ment, not­ing that the gov­er­nor has ded­i­cated $1.15 bil­lion in fund­ing to­ward Mary­land HBCUs.

A panel of 4th Circuit judges de­ter­mined ear­lier this year the case ought to be set­tled. If not, they wrote, “the par­ties will likely con­demn them­selves to end­less years of ac­ri­mo­nious, di­vi­sive and ex­pen­sive lit­i­ga­tion that will only work to the detri­ment of higher ed­u­ca­tion in Mary­land.”

That’s part of why Jones said his firm wanted to send Tues­day’s let­ter. He hopes to bring dis­cus­sions out into the open, and pro­pel the de­bate for­ward pub­licly.

“Lit­i­gat­ing for the next 10 years is not in the schools’ in­ter­ests,” Jones said. “It’s in their in­ter­ests to get the re­sources and pro­grams that can make a dif­fer­ence.”

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