Maryland HBCU Lawsuit Leaves No Room for Mistakes in Selection of Next Chancellor

The history of racism and discrimination in this country makes it hard for African-Americans to criticize one of our own ascending to heights of increased responsibility, authority and influence. Even when one of us is promoted in the wrong way, or for the wrong reason, it seems that we readily steep ourselves in cultural obligation to support and defend those who are our color, but not necessarily our kind.

Just the thought of breaking that sacred bond of ethnic pride triggers many in our community to question the identity, motives and convictions of those who would dare to think, live and serve outside of our ethnic solidarity.

Recent efforts by the Baltimore Sun to influence the selection of a new chancellor for the University System of Maryland are likely to test the ethnic pride of many Black Marylanders, and those who support equality in higher education. The Sun has targeted University of Maryland-Baltimore County President Freeman Hrabowski as its undisputed choice as the next leader of Maryland’s higher education system.

Hrabowski, whose legacy as the transformative Black leader of a predominantly white honors college ight be tarnished, if not outright jeopardized, ith any fair and equitable settlement f the lawsuit filed against the state by alumni and students of Maryland’s historically Black institutions, is a candidate so blatantly stereotypic and insensitive, it should offend the dignity of the most reluctant critic. The Sun’s cheerleading for Hrawbowski shows complete disregard for the generational harm students, alumni, faculty and staff at Maryland’s four historically Black colleges and universities which continue to suffer under a higher education system declared unconstitutional by a federal court.

In making its case for the UMBC president, Sun editorial board members assert “There is perhaps no one better positioned to resolve one of the major challenges facing the next chancellor: the lawsuit from supporters of Maryland’s historically black colleges and universities over funding and program duplication.” The Sun continues with “ Mr. Hrabowski spent a decade at what is now Coppin State University, yet he has the perspective of a leader of one the state’s white institutions that is strikingly diverse.”

The Coalition lawsuit may be described more accurately as the single most important challenge facing the next USM chancellor, the next governor, and the next secretary of the state system of higher education. Its fate is inextricably tethered to the future of thousands of students, families and communities throughout the state of Maryland. And beyond the Free State borders, its resolution bears the hope of all Black colleges and their supporters, who endlessly seek to achieve equity and parity for these schools by way of legal intervention and remedy.

The lawsuit and the resulting court decision are of such importance as to require a transformative leader with fresh ideas; a leader who is less invested in the current system of higher education and more committed to change; a person who has not benefited from, or encouraged the unconstitutional practice of unnecessary program duplication at the sacrifice of a more economically efficient, socially effective and constitutionally sound system of colleges and universities.

Most importantly, resolution of the lawsuit requires one who accepts the four Historically Black institutions as equal partners in the Maryland higher education system, and is genuinely excited about the opportunity to join other higher education enthusiasts in convincing the state political leadership of both the value and urgency of significant policy reform and program realignment.

On these essential requirements, Hrabowski scores well below the desired mark.

The possibility of having an African-American as the USM chancellor is extremely attractive. But to have Hrabowski, who in spite of his baccalaureate and professional ties to Black colleges has been a quiet adversary of Maryland HBCUs, would only complicate efforts to resolve the lawsuit and retard the healing that must occur once a resolution is achieved.

The Sun is right in suggesting that Hrabowski’s presence in Maryland could have a chilling effect on the search for a new chancellor, and could signal to persons with excellent credentials that he or she need not apply. Hrabowski has indicated that he doesn’t want the job, and perhaps the Sun may be better advised to take him at his word and to allow the duly constituted search committee to select a candidate with the “star power” matching the magnitude of the job.

Many chances remain for Maryland to open the doors of access and opportunity to all of its students. But if Freeman Hrabowski chooses to avail himself to the overtures of state legislature and media, those doors will be shut and sealed under the false guise of racial progress. No matter how difficult it may be to criticize one of our own, t pales in comparison to the difficulty young people attending our historically black institutions will face if disparities at their institutions are allowed to persist.

It is the persistence of these issues of conscience and civil rights that transforms otherwise stable neighborhoods and larger jurisdictions into national crises similar to the unfortunate incident that recently occurred in Ferguson County, Missouri.

On this issue, Marylanders and supporters of equity in higher education nationwide, can’t be caught with our hands up.