Departure of Maryland Higher Ed Secretary Blows State's Cover

Given all that has transpired over the last two years in the historic fight for parity and equality for Maryland's historically Black colleges, it may come as a surprise to many that much of the state's most damaging efforts against black colleges came under the signature of African-American higher education secretaries. The last four secretaries of Maryland higher education were African-American, and during their respective terms of service, the state effectively abandoned obligations made to the federal government to desegregate its post-secondary education system.

So the recent departure of former secretary Dr. Danette Howard has struck a mighty blow to Governor Martin O'Malley and University System of Maryland (USM) Chancellor William "Brit" Kirwan. They no longer have an African-American general for their long-standing war on the state's historically Black colleges and universities.

To be fair, the state has been more shrewd than to rely solely upon African-American signors and advocates for HBCU program duplication at predominantly white colleges. Following the recommendations of the USM inspired Larson Commission, the state first curtailed the regulatory authority of the statewide agency responsible for dismantling Maryland's "separate and unequal" system of higher education. Then the legislature and the Governor modified the policies of that agency and gutted the staff having responsibility for performing critical coordinating functions.

The University System of Maryland was given a greater role in institutional mission and academic program approval and budget submissions, while workforce planning and other functions shifted to other state agencies. The Maryland Higher Education Commission (MHEC) staff was reduced by nearly half.  These changes created the ideal conditions for academic program duplication and the unprecedented segregation federal court Judge Catherine Blake referred to in her findings of fact and conclusions of law.

The University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC) duplicated the Morgan State University (MSU) electrical/computer engineering program.  Towson University duplicated the Morgan MBA program.  The University of Maryland University College (UMUC) duplicated the Morgan Doctorate in Community College Leadership; the University of Baltimore duplicated freshmen and sophomore program offerings at Coppin, Bowie and Morgan; and Towson and UMUC duplicated programs at Bowie and Morgan.

As this underground strategy was unfolding, objecting Black colleges were badgered by legislators with fabricated claims of mismanagement and calls for what would have been the first performance audit ever conducted on any college or university in the state.  State auditors created suspicion of unproven criminal wrongdoing at Morgan, while the handling of court-proven criminal activity at the institution benefiting most from the state's academic program duplication effort was cited as a model for other institutions.

Perhaps the most revealing aspect of the effort to undermine HBCUs came as a democratic legislator from a conservative part of the state cautioned then Morgan State President Earl S. Richardson to "Stick to his knitting" as he petitioned legislative committee to make his campus comparable and competitive with its traditionally White counterparts.

Defending such a well-orchestrated state strategy against Maryland's HBCUs must have been particularly humiliating for Dr. Howard, considering the area of her dissertation researchstudies at the PEW Foundation, and her background as an HBCU alumna.  It must have been agonizing, being obligated by position to support decisions for which she had no role in shaping, nor any voice in determining proper remedies for generational injustices.

The ultimate humiliation had to have come as her state counsel attempted to justify to the court the unlawful actions of USM Chancellor Kirwan and his political associates.  But Dr. Howard's transition to an organization with a genuine focus on minorities and minority serving institutions must be very gratifying and those individuals who wish her well should rejoice and be glad.

Meanwhile, Marylanders must question whether or not our state is as progressive as recent political propaganda from former NAACP President and opportunistic HBCU advocate Ben Jealous would lead us to believe or is it a warmed-over version of the old south we want desperately to forget?  Was the appointment of African-American secretaries of higher education truly a sign of progress, or was it a Trojan horse intended to conceal the great harm being inflicted on Black colleges and the students they serve?

Did those appointments signal the end of an era of segregation and discrimination, or were they simply an omen of the massive resistance state officials and Chancellor Kirwan intend to mount against efforts to bring the Maryland higher education system into compliance with the law?

We all will soon know what the state's agenda is.  Marylanders will know if the State wishes to break new ground and mediate a resolution to the court's finding against program duplication, or if the state will again follow the lead of Mississippi in appealing the decision of the federal district court all the way to the Supreme Court.