Maryland lawmakers approve $577M to settle HBCU lawsuit

An attorney described it as 'one of the largest pro bono civil rights settlements in history'

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Maryland lawmakers gave final passage Wednesday to a measure to pay $577 million over 10 years to settle a federal lawsuit alleging discrimination and underfunding at the state’s four historically Black colleges and universities.

An attorney described it as “one of the largest pro bono civil rights settlements in history.”

The House voted 120-14 to send the measure to Gov. Larry Hogan, who vetoed a similar bill last year after citing economic difficulties created by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Senate approved the bill 47-0 earlier in the day in response to the 15-year-old lawsuit.

“The Maryland state legislature today took a significant step toward addressing historic inequities in Maryland higher education,” Morgan State University President David Wilson declared after the vote.

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Morgan State University (Credit: Morgan State University)

The Baltimore university is one of Maryland’s four HBCUs. The settlement will enable the university to continue to put in place unique high-demand academic degree programs that businesses say they need and to shore up infrastructure, Wilson said.

Shareese DeLeaver-Churchill, Hogan’s spokeswoman, said “the governor will carefully review the legislation when it reaches his desk.”

Michael Jones, the lead counsel for The Coalition for Equity and Excellence in Maryland Higher Education, has been working on the case for 12 years. He said the settlement is unique, because the HBCUs were represented pro bono by private litigants with the resources for a long legal battle. Other HBCU cases in Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi were led by the U.S. Justice Department, Jones noted.

“It’s one of the largest pro bono civil rights settlements in history, and it is the only case of its kind that had a settlement that went around the governor and directly to the legislators,” Jones said, adding that he felt that lawmakers now have a renewed appreciation for HBCUs and the roles they play in the state.

The latest measure would not begin payments until fiscal year 2023 in an adjustment to account for the pandemic’s fiscal impact.

Most of the measure’s provisions are contingent on a final settlement agreement between the parties by June 1. Jones said he’s confident that will be achieved.

“Once the legislation is finalized, there are no impediments to a settlement,” Jones said. “I don’t anticipate any problems at all, once it becomes law.”

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The animation and motion graphics concentration at Bowie State University, Maryland’s oldest historically black university and one of the 10 oldest in the country, is reportedly one of the HBCU’s fastest-growing majors. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

The lawsuit dating to 2006 alleged that the state had underfunded the institutions while developing programs at traditionally white schools that directly compete with and drain prospective students away from HBCUs.

In 2013, a federal judge found that the state had maintained “a dual and segregated education system” that violated the Constitution.

In 2019, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ordered a fourth attempt at mediation, but the case has remained unresolved. In February 2018, Hogan had proposed a $100 million settlement to be allocated over a 10-year period, but the plaintiffs rejected this proposal and offered to settle the case for $577 million to be “spread over a reasonable time period.” The Republican governor later offered $200 million to settle the case.

Maryland’s four historically black colleges are Bowie State University, Coppin State University, Morgan State University and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore.

The pro bono legal work was done by Kirkland & Ellis and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

The funds in the settlement would be used for scholarships and financial aid support services, as well as faculty recruitment and development The money also could be used to expand and improve existing academic programs, including online programs, as well as the development and implementation of new academic programs.

The measure creates an HBCU Reserve Fund to hold unused funds at the end of each fiscal year. A new academic program evaluation unit would be formed in the Maryland Higher Education Commission.

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