Court-Ordered Mediation in HBCU Lawsuit Fails

Del. Darryl Barnes (D-Prince George's), chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus. Photo by Danielle E. Gaines

Another round of court-ordered mediation has again ended without resolution in the 13-year case by a coalition of alumni from historically black colleges and universities against the state of Maryland.

The most recent deadline – imposed by a panel of three U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals judges in January – passed on Monday.

The judges had urged the state and the Coalition for Equity and Excellence in Maryland Higher Education to settle the case, “otherwise, 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.”

Jon Greenbaum, chief counsel for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, which represents the coalition, confirmed Tuesday that there was no resolution during the mediation period, but said he remains confident the HBCUs would prevail in court.

A coalition of advocates and alumni from the HBCUs – Morgan State, Coppin State, Bowie State and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore – first filed the case against Maryland in 2006, alleging that the state had failed to dismantle vestiges of segregated higher education, including by underfunding the four institutions and by allowing traditionally white state universities to continue creating new degree programs that were duplicative of programs at the historically black schools.

In U.S. District Court, the coalition prevailed in claims that program duplication had perpetuated the segregation of Maryland’s higher education system.

As a remedy, the coalition wanted the state to stop allowing duplication of educational programs, the development of new and unique programs at HBCUs and more state funding for capital improvements on HBCU campuses. Maryland offered financial settlements which the coalition found inadequate without a concrete plan for implementing reforms.

The state appealed the District Court’s finding in 2017. The case was argued at the Fourth Circuit in December 2018 and, before deciding the matter, the judges placed the case in mediation a few weeks later.

Attorneys on both sides said Tuesday that they could not comment specifically about what happened in mediation. The Maryland Attorney General’s Office declined to comment.

Greenbaum said now that the case is back in the judges’ hands, he expects “to continue to meet with success in this case.”

“What we’re hoping for is that this case can get resolved not too long from now and that the HBCUs will be in a more competitive place,” Greenbaum said.

It’s hard to predict when the case will move forward. No formal notice had been filed with the court about the failed settlement discussions as of 9 p.m. Tuesday.

In an emailed statement, a spokeswoman for Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) said “the administration is always open to discussions in an effort to settle this case in a fair and equitable manner.”

In 2018, Hogan said he was willing to direct as much as $100 million to HBCUs over the next 10 years to settle the lawsuit. Last year, he discussed the case with members of the Legislative Black Caucus, who considered the prior offer inadequate.

On Tuesday, Del. Darryl Barnes (D-Prince George’s), chairman of the caucus, said resolution of the case will continue to be a top priority for the LBC. Barnes said he was going to reach out to Hogan to see if it’s possible to work as a group to settle the claims.

“It’s something I hope the governor will take a stance and step in and do something about,” Barnes said.

An ideal resolution would include an analysis of duplicative degree programs, an agreement on which schools should offer which programs and some financial award, he said.

However, Barnes is worried that a high-dollar settlement for HBCUs is becoming less likely, especially with the legislative focus on funding the multi-billion-dollar annual price tag to fully implement Kirwan Commission recommendations for improving K-12 education in the state.

“At this point, I’m very disappointed with how things are turning out,” Barnes said about the still-lingering lawsuit. “We have been fighting for our HBCUs and to settle this lawsuit for quite some time. And we will continue to make this a high priority of the Legislative Black Caucus.”

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Editor’s Note: This story was updated to make clear that the Coalition for Equity and Excellence in Maryland Higher Education includes alumni from the state’s historically black colleges and universities. The universities are not a party to the litigation.

Danielle E. Gaines
Danielle Gaines most recently worked for Bethesda Beat covering Montgomery County. Previously, she spent six years at The Frederick News-Post as the paper’s principal government and politics reporter for half that time, covering courts and legal affairs before that. She also reported for the now-defunct The Gazette of Politics and Business in Maryland and previously worked as a county government and education reporter at the Merced Sun-Star in California’s Central Valley.

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