A recent report looking into the Maryland Higher Education Commission recommends the organization implement a more transparent, consistent policy for universities objecting to the creation of similar academic programs elsewhere – an issue that was the subject of a recent federal ruling that led to a hefty settlement with the state’s Historically Black colleges and universities.
The settlement, decided in 2021, will award Maryland’s four HBCUs $555 million in added funding over the next decade. The legal battle, which began in 2006, found that the state had a history of undermining its HBCUs, partly by allowing historically white universities to implement similar academic programs already at HBCUs.
The Maryland Department of Legislative Services contracted the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems to assess the MHEC and see “where Maryland goes from here.” The NCHEMS report suggests the MHEC does not have clear guidelines for how a university should go about objecting to the creation of a similar or duplicate academic program at a fellow institution.
The report, released Aug. 12, does not guarantee action from the General Assembly.
The NCHEMS found that any objection is likely to be sustained “regardless of the strength of the evidence accompanying the objection,” with most objections from 2017 to June 8, 2022 coming from Morgan State University, an HBCU. Fellow HBCUs University of Maryland Eastern Shore and Coppin State University held ranks three and four for most lodged objections during the same time period.
Additionally, the NCHEMS report says that MHEC staff has not considered locational difference to be reason enough to approve a similar academic program elsewhere. Rather, they have sustained objections in the past that said an academic program did not need to be duplicated because it could be accessed online. The report also said sustaining such objections based on this argument does not take into account students who do not have online access or those who prefer face-to-face classes.
“MHEC’s first come-first serve treatment of program approval has contributed to an atmosphere of distrust among the institutions,” the report says. “The stakeholders attributed this in part to MHEC’s system of allowing anyone to object to new program proposals. There were cases described in which an objection was raised to a new program, MHEC sustaining the objection, and the objecting institution then hiring the faculty who were working at the institution that had proposed the new program.”
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Over the past five years, Morgan State has objected to 11 academic programs. University of Maryland Baltimore, not an HBCU, has objected to six. University of Maryland Eastern Shore and Coppin State University objected to six and four programs, respectively. Several other colleges and universities have also objected to programs. Not all objections were approved, but Morgan State won the most — six out of 11.
“We are reviewing the findings of this report and look forward to collaborating with our many partners in continuously improving higher education for students and families throughout Maryland,” says a statement from Coppin State.
UMES Director of Public Relations Earl Holland Jr. echoed Coppin State, saying campus leaders are reviewing the report and looking forward to future collaborations. Morgan State officials were not available for comment.
The health field has received the most academic program objections, during this time frame, showcasing how high demand programs “face unusually high barriers to approval and may be limiting the extent to which institutions are able to respond to state [employment] needs.”
After 2025, Maryland high school graduation numbers are projected to decline, according to the report, meaning institutions will have greater competition for students. The report recommends MHEC work to increase institutional collaborations to achieve state and student needs, which requires building trust, especially with HBCUs given the lawsuit.
Furthermore, the report suggests MHEC outline operational missions with colleges and universities to build measurable goals over three-year periods. Doing so, the report said, “would be a more productive way to strengthen HBIs and help them meet their modern goals.”
“MHEC has been using the program review process to address historic inequities in campus resources among the HBIs and to help them attract a more diverse student body,” the report reads. “It does not put students’ needs first. It creates barriers to innovation and does not support thriving institutions. It is not transparent nor predictable, nor is it based on evaluated evidence. It certainly does not stimulate interinstitutional collaboration, nor is it consistent with Maryland’s statewide plan.”