Lawmakers, Advocates Rally for End to 13-year HBCU Lawsuit

Broadcast journalist Roland Martin speaks at a rally calling on lawmakers to settle a 13-year legal dispute over funding for historically black college and universities in Maryland. Photo by Danielle E. Gaines.

Chants from historically black colleges and universities rang out across the Maryland state government complex in Annapolis on Wednesday as lawmakers and advocates vowed to end a long-running lawsuit over equitable state funding.

“We call upon Governor [Lawrence J. Hogan Jr.] and the legislature to stop the foot-dragging and delay, and act quickly to find the funds to rectify this long-festering injustice,” said Del. Charles E. Sydnor III (D-Baltimore County), who led the rally along Bladen Street.

The Coalition for Equity and Excellence in Maryland Higher Education first filed their case in 2006, alleging that the state had failed to dismantle vestiges of segregated higher education, including by underfunding the state’s four historically black institutions and by allowing traditionally white state universities to continue creating new degree programs that were duplicative of programs at HBCUs.

After several rounds of failed court-ordered mediation to determine a remedial payment from the state, the coalition’s attorney wrote a direct appeal to lawmakers this summer.

A coalition of advocates and alumni from the HBCUs – Morgan State, Coppin State, Bowie State and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore – is willing to settle the case for a $577 million funding commitment spread over “a reasonable time period,” Michael D. Jones wrote to legislative leaders.

The Hogan administration countered with a $200 million “final offer.”

Things have been at a stalemate since, with no new court dates on the horizon.

Students take a selfie at a rally calling for increased funding for historically black colleges and universities in Annapolis. Photo by Danielle E. Gaines.

Maryland’s Legislative Black Caucus – the largest in America, its leaders said Wednesday – thinks more can be done and is urging the administration to include plans for an increased settlement amount in next year’s budget.

House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County) wrote Hogan last month urging him to go along with the $577 million offer, which she says the state can afford.

“I know what can and can’t be done,” Jones told the crowd Wednesday, noting her experience on the House Appropriations Committee.

“I’m in support and I’m just as anxious as you are,” for a settlement, she said.

Fedelis Tucker, a junior studying communications at Bowie State, was among the students who rallied the crowd.

“We are here to fight for funds. We are here to fight for equal facilities. We are here to fight for our future and what is long overdue,” he said.

Bruce Branch, executive director of the Maryland Business Clergy Partnership, came out to the rally because it’s been an important issue to him – for years.

When he was president of the Black Student Union at the University of Maryland College Park in 1975, equitable funding was an issue then.

“I’m a strong believer that HBCUs play a critical role in our communities by providing leadership, scholarship and business opportunities for a segment of our community who otherwise wouldn’t have it,” Branch said as he watched the speakers on stage. “This governor and this administration should do what it can to uphold the law and provide equal opportunities for all residents regardless of race, gender or political affiliation.”

Maryland education leader Alvin Thornton, who was president of the Morgan State faculty association in 1975, said he was ringing alarms then about funding inequities.

“What would have happened if we had done right back then?” Thornton shouted. “We’re back here in 2019 fighting the same fight.”

Some of the strongest messages of the afternoon came from Roland Martin, the former CNN commentator and founder of Roland Martin Unfiltered, a daily news broadcast aimed at black Americans.

Martin said he called on Hogan and Lt. Gov. Boyd K. Rutherford (R) to increase the funding at a trade gala last month.

“There is no way in the world somebody can be lieutenant governor of this state and be an HBCU graduate and somehow think $200 million is acceptable. That is an abomination and he should be called out,” Martin said.

But he shared criticisms of legislative Democrats as well.

“You control the House and the Senate – and you don’t have a party without black folks,” Martin said. “So if this governor does not increase the funding, then I dare say to every Democrat in Maryland: Either you stand with black folks or you’re against black folks.”

He encouraged the crowd to continue coming to Annapolis during the legislative session to push for a resolution of the case.

Hogan’s office defended the administration’s efforts to resolve the case on Wednesday.

In a letter to Jones last month, Hogan noted that his $200 million offer was substantially more than the state had offered in the past and that the legislature could try to find space in the state’s budget to increase the offer further.

“After failing to resolve this matter for eight years, the O’Malley administration’s final offer was $40 million. The Hogan-Rutherford administration has dramatically increased the state’s offer to $200 million ― a 500 percent increase,” Hogan spokeswoman Shareese Churchill said after the rally. “In addition, we have provided historically high funding for Maryland’s HBCUs, and HBCUs are now better funded than other state schools. Governor Hogan has shown real leadership on this issue where others have repeatedly failed over the years.”

Members of the Legislative Black Caucus are holding their annual legislative conference in Annapolis through this weekend. Their push for funding in 2020 could clash with other legislative priorities, including a multi-billion dollar K-12 reform plan by the Kirwan Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education.

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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.