Segregation suit reaches hands of federal judge

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Courtesy of The Baltimore Sun

Judge will decide whether Maryland’s higher-education policies cause racial divisions to persist for historically black universities

U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Blake interrupted attorneys for both sides during the four hours of closing arguments Friday with questions and comments that gave hints at the issues she will weigh as she sorts through the six weeks of testimony and hundreds of pages of documents. She did not give an indication Friday when she will issue her ruling, saying only that it would not be “immediate.”

Michael C. Jones, the attorney for the colleges’ alumni and students, argued that the state’s four historically black colleges — Morgan State University, Coppin State University, Bowie State University and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore — have never been given the chance to throw off the legacy of segregation, held back by a lack of money and decisions by the state to favor traditionally white institutions.

Blake paid particular attention to the issue of whether disparities between the historically black institutions and other schools in the state system can be traced to segregation-era policies, and the problems caused by the similarities in the course offerings at state colleges.

“I’m troubled by what seems to be a duplication of programs at geographically proximate institutions,” she told Craig Thompson, the attorney representing the state.

The judge noted that the issue seemed especially serious in Baltimore and suggested that it was fairly easy to trace the duplication back to segregation, which required two of each program, one for whites and one for blacks.

The case was first filed in October 2006 and went to trial after attempts at mediation foundered last year. Blake thanked the attorneys for their work as she drew the trial to a close Friday afternoon.

“These are extremely complicated issues, and you’ve all done a wonderful job,” she said.

The advocates for the historically black institutions are seeking more than $1 billion to fund expansion and the creation of new programs to attract students of all races.

But Thompson said Friday that there was no evidence that the plaintiffs in the case had been injured by the state’s policies or were somehow steered to attend the historically black colleges. In court filings, the state asked that the case be dismissed.

“Glaringly absent from Mr. Jones’ presentation was any evidence, any testimony … of any cognizable injury to any students who have rights under the Constitution,” he said, questioning whether they had standing to bring the suit.

The duplication issue has long rankled with students and alumni of the historically black institutions, who argue that their colleges will never be able to compete with other state institutions if their most interesting and distinctive offerings are duplicated elsewhere.

A joint master’s program in business administration at the University of Baltimore and Towson University that was created in 2005 over the objections of Morgan State University received particular attention in the case.

But Thompson said the state has had a policy that allows black colleges to appeal plans to expand programs elsewhere and that rulings are usually in their favor. “The process works,” he said.

The students and alumni also contend that the state underfunds the four historically black colleges, which lag behind after years of neglect. Jones pointed to a series of commissions and reports that he said show that the state knew about the disparities but failed to rectify them.

“Maryland recognized that they needed to expand the facilities and mission capacity of the [historically black institutions] but just never did,” he said.

But Blake pushed Jones on whether he could draw a distinction between “vestiges” or “remnants” of the segregation policies and current policies.

Thompson said segregation was an “embarrassing stain on this country’s history” but added that “there are no current policies that are traceable” to that era.

If the judge rules that Maryland’s policies have promoted continuing segregation, she will have to decide on an appropriate remedy.

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