There’s renewed determination in corners of Annapolis to settle a 13-year lawsuit by alumni from historically black colleges and universities against the state of Maryland – after a settlement offer was sent to legislative leaders on Tuesday.
The letter came after several rounds of court-ordered mediation to settle the case have failed, most recently in July.
The Coalition for Equity and Excellence in Maryland Higher Education, as alumni from the HBCUs are collectively known in court filings, is willing to settle the case for $577 million “spread over a reasonable time period,” attorney Michael Jones wrote Tuesday.
The letter was sent to Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert), House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County), Del. Darryl Barnes (D-Prince George’s), the Legislative Black Caucus chairman, and Del. Charles E. Sydnor III (D-Baltimore County), who is the black caucus parliamentarian and has pressed for a resolution to the HBCU case in the past.
“With increasing attention focused on equity for the nation’s HBCUs, in light of the various proposals put forth by several presidential candidates, and the fact that this is National HBCU Week, now is the time to bring justice to Maryland’s black colleges,” Michael Jones wrote.
He told the lawmakers they could be “in a position to play a role similar to that of Congressman Bennie Thompson, who provided the leadership to settle Mississippi’s case twenty years ago.”
And while noting a U.S. District Court judge’s conclusion that Maryland’s HBCU disparities were as bad or worse than Mississippi’s, Michael Jones said the coalition was willing to settle the case for a comparatively smaller sum.
Mississippi paid $516.98 million to settle the Ayers vs. Fordice case in 2001. Michael Jones says that figure would be about $791 million in today’s dollars, and if further adjusted to encompass Maryland’s four HBCU campuses rather than Mississippi’s three, a comparable settlement would reach more than $1 billion.
Nevertheless, the coalition is seeking to settle the case now with the direct involvement of lawmakers.
Maryland’s U.S. senators, Chris Van Hollen and Benjamin L. Cardin, as well as the state’s two black U.S. representatives, Elijah E. Cummings and Anthony G. Brown, all Democrats, were copied on the letter from Jones, who works for Kirkland & Ellis in Washington, D.C.
Barnes intends to send a letter Wednesday to Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R), legislative leaders and HBCU representatives asking for a meeting to discuss an agreement.
“This number is doable, it’s just a matter of like-minded individuals coming together now,” Barnes said.
A settlement in the case has been one of the top priorities for the Legislative Black Caucus for years, to no resolution.
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. However, the offer was considered “woefully inadequate” by members of the Legislative Black Caucus.
On Tuesday, spokesman Michael Ricci said Hogan has been committed to funding HBCUs, but he did not comment specifically about the offer in Tuesday’s letter, which was not sent to the governor’s office.
“Governor Hogan has dedicated $1.15 billion in funding toward Maryland HBCUs – no governor in the history of the state has invested more in his first five years in office. In that spirit, we negotiated in good faith, making a generous offer and dramatically increasing that offer,” Ricci said.
What figures have been discussed in court-ordered mediation are unknown, as the negotiations are secret and attorneys on both sides have declined to comment on the proceedings.
A coalition of advocates and alumni from the HBCUs – Morgan State, Coppin State, Bowie State and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore – first filed their case 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, to develop new and unique programs at HBCUs and direct 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.
If a financial settlement is reached, the coalition will use the funds to launch new academic programs, provide scholarships and undertake rebranding initiatives to “offset the State’s decades of stigmatization of the HBCUs,” Michael Jones wrote.
A settlement could have ripple effects in campus communities as well, he said.
“As you know, two of the HBCUs are located in Baltimore, a city which could profit from additional investments,” Jones wrote.
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.