How a university president can save Maryland from itself

In the 21st century, each state’s fortune is pegged to the success or failure of its major cities, and each city’s success or failure is highly related to the success or failure of its universities.

Places like Boston, Raleigh, Madison and Austin are booming, primarily because they have built their economies around internationally acclaimed universities. The DC economy benefits immensely from the District’s many university campuses. Even blue-collar Philadelphia is building skyscrapers in its University City region. Most people wouldn’t argue about the benefits a few good-sized campuses can bring to a metro area. The idea is hardly controversial.

And at first glance, it would seem that Maryland — and specifically Baltimore — could easily pump some extra money into its campuses and benefit significantly from this trend. As a member of the five-city pack that also includes Boston, New York, Philly and DC, Baltimore can offer Midwesterners the cachet of going “out East” for an upper-crust education while also offering a significant advantage in terms of cost. While the east coast isn’t what it used to be in the minds of many, that’s still a pretty strong package to offer a prospective student.

So why can’t Maryland’s largest city seem to get it together and follow that model toward a bright, academically oriented future?

Three words: Morgan State University

Every time one of the growing, increasingly prestigious state universities in the Baltimore region adds a significant program, a coalition of graduates from historically black colleges and universities — led mostly by Morgan alums — comes rushing litigiously onto the scene, waving their arms and doing their damnedest to undo the progress, arguing that the state should be putting the financial resources concerned into the coffers of sputtering HBCUs rather than — ya know — institutions that can actually compete nationally for talented students and research dollars.

Nevermind that our state’s failing HBCUs no longer do the best job of educating Maryland’s successful black professionals — an honor that now falls to the traditionally white and aggressively diversifying University of Maryland, Baltimore County — or that their six-year graduation rates are among the worst on the east coast. Nevermind that some of them should have been merged into other institutions years ago. Nevermind that everybody knows they’ll never even make it into the top 200 on the U.S. News rankings. They want their fiefdoms of failure to get a bigger share of the pie, and they’re willing to sabotage much more promising parts of the state’s educational future in order to get it. A few examples:

— When Towson University decided to start offering a joint MBA program in partnership with the University of Baltimore — both traditionally white schools that, as with UMBC, are laudably diversifying these days — Morgan alums filed a lawsuit, arguing that the presence of a competing program north of Baltimore was somehow hurting their own MBA. Towson has since backed out of the program.

— Similarly, when UB had the gall — the gall! — to start aggressively recruiting freshmen, run a fundraising campaign and build a new law school, Morgan’s president opined that the state “missed an important opportunity” by not forcing the city’s namesake university to become a branch of his little-known school. The temerity of these upstarts! The unfairness!

— When UMBC built a nationally regarded electrical engineering program from scratch — one that has a stellar record of educating black professionals, by the way — the Morgan alums struck again, arguing that such desirable programs at other schools should be relocated to their institution. Because, historical racism, or something.

I know. I can hear the objections now. “They’re right, though,” you say. “These HBCUs are getting an unfairly small slice of the pie. They are underfunded.”

I’m not going to argue that point. There may have been a time, back in the 1960s, when fully funding these institutions could have established them as viable brands.

But that time has long since passed. In the modern age of aggressive diversity campaigns at most major universities, it just doesn’t make sense to keep forcing segregated brands down students’ throats. Students simply don’t want the product that HBCUs are selling.

Let’s unpack that argument a bit more by looking at the best-case scenario for aspiring HBCUs. Of the more than 100 existing HBCUs in the country, DC’s Howard University is arguably the most prestigious, with a law school, a medical school and a location in the nation’s most ornate city.

It’s tied for a dismal 124th slot in the latest U.S. News rankings.

And that’s the best-case scenario. In contrast with Howard, Morgan isn’t even ranked. If it were ranked, it would surely be outside of the top 200, and Coppin State — Morgan’s even more poorly performing cross-town cousin — would surely do even worse, as it lags behind Morgan on several key metrics. Nationwide, scholars have found that attending an HBCU results in a significant wage penalty for the students involved. Most HBCUs are more than 70% black — an environment that arguably robs students of key coping skills they will need in elite business environments, where they are likely to be in the minority.

Do you see what I’m saying? These legacy campuses served a noble purpose combating segregation when they first arrived, but in the 21st century, they embody that very segregation, and it’s hurting their students. No matter how much money the state might pour into these failing brands, they will never cease to self-identify as HBCUs and will thus remain forever tainted in the minds of national and international educational consumers. Diversity is a two-way street, and nobody likes the idea of going to school with a bunch of self-segregating also-rans.

Call it racist if you want — this allegation of racism almost certainly won’t offend the Indian father who wants his son to go to an American university that’s less than 70% black, nor will it offend the Vietnamese mother who wants her daughter to go to a well-ranked school abroad. These consumer preferences — whether labeled as racist or not — are simply global realities that no government edict from Annapolis can change. Ignoring those consumer preferences by continuing to fund the de facto segregation of HBCUs is unnecessarily hurting the state’s drawing power.

And it’s actually worse than that. If de facto segregation were the only problem, there might be hope for these institutions, but Maryland’s HBCUs have shown an active, willful and continuing pattern of self-segregation, no matter how much their leaders might pretend otherwise during sound bites. Morgan’s leadership, for example, has chosen to have only one white face among its 15-member board of regents and uses on its Google result description the following text:

“Maryland’s urban public university, research university, hbcu, maryland hbcu morgan state university baltimore maryland historically black colleges and …”

Disregarding the side note that Morgan clearly needs to hire a competent SEO guy who understands the basics of writing metadata summaries, we can see from these wording choices that the school chooses to brand itself as “urban” — a not-so-subtle code word for “black” — and an “HBCU” — a not-so-subtle way of saying “run the other way if you want a top-tier education.”

Nobody forced the school’s leadership cabal to use this language on the description for their own website — their brand’s front door to the world, as it were. Nobody forced them to model non-diverse leadership patterns. They continue to willfully go down this path, to the extreme detriment of both their own university and the surrounding state.

So who can solve this problem for Maryland? Who can fold the resources of these failing legacy institutions into a more successful brand?

There may only be one guy who has a decent shot: UMBC President Freeman Hrabowski.

Among leaders of the region’s traditionally white institutions, Hrabowski stands alone for a few reasons.

First, he has experience creating strong outcomes for black people in a higher education environment. According to a TIME profile of Dr. Hrabowski, UMBC is one of the country’s top sources of African American Ph.Ds in science and engineering, and almost half of its seniors go immediately to grad school. This is an impressive turnaround for a school that has successfully overcome its own racist past. (UMBC was founded in the 1960s as a tacit alternative to the nearby HBCUs, but they’ve laudably diversified since then. If you Google UMBC, you will not find their search summary saying that they’re a “traditionally white institution,” because unlike Morgan State, they’re not run by self-sabotaging, race-obsessed idiots.)

Second, Dr. Hrabowski has a strong personal narrative that gives him additional gravitas. He is, of course, a black man himself, and he was jailed as part of the civil rights struggle. He knows a thing or two about the challenges that students at HBCUs face. Nobody is going to accuse him of not understanding the black experience.

And finally, his institution is already a potential victim of this fight — since Morgan State keeps trying to take over programs that his school built from the ground up — so if he chooses to hit back at the HBCU bullies by suggesting a merger of schools under the upwardly mobile UMBC flag, nobody will accuse him of bullying.

And that’s exactly what Dr. Hrabowski must do if he wants Maryland to avoid brain drain and thrive: State publically, repeatedly and forcefully that Morgan and Coppin should become well-resourced branches of UMBC.

Everyone wins in this scenario.

Students win. Having lost the onerous HBCU label in favor of the increasingly valuable UMBC brand, the students at the existing campuses in east and west Baltimore will be able to have pride in their degrees, knowing that their institution is likely to become more highly ranked as time goes on. Currently, having an HBCU on your resume is just shy of putting clipart of a confederate flag or a kewpie doll next to your name. A UMBC takeover releases students from having to perpetuate that stigma in the name of campus pride.

State leaders win. Having neutered one of the most destructively litigious groups in higher education, the state will be able to move ahead with the build-out of quality research and teaching programs, without constantly worrying that all progress might be undone by a bunch of skintone-obsessed sociopaths. Heck, maybe we can even direct our freed-up energies toward building a third law school somewhere in our fine state. (Neighboring Pennsylvania and Virginia each have more than a half-dozen.)

And, of course, UMBC wins. The university will avoid having its brand decimated by a campaign of gutting and intentional asset devaluation — which is exactly what the currently proposed transference of nationally known programs to the campus of a self-segregating glorified community college would equate to.

Dr. Hrabowski, I’m sorry you’ve been dragged into this. You seem like a stand-up guy, and I certainly don’t like the idea of your school losing its best programs, so I ask that you do your best to initiate takeover proceedings in order to merge Morgan and Coppin into UMBC, allowing the whole state to breathe a well-deserved sigh of relief.

We all know you didn’t start this silly fight, but I believe you have a decent shot at ending it. Please do us proud.

Bara Richter is a former Baltimore County resident.