For the past month, Marvin “Doc” Cheatham has been working the telephones – and emails.
Cheatham, chairman of HBCU Matters, has been drumming up media attention and continued to help rally students ahead of a major court hearing involving a years-old lawsuit over inequality in public higher education.
At the direction of Cheatham and others, a coalition of students and alumni of historically Black colleges and universities is planning to pack the Fourth District Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia, on Tuesday, Dec. 11 during a hearing about HBCUs and the funding equity problems in the state of Maryland.
Coalition members argue that Maryland has underfunded Morgan State University, Coppin State University, Bowie State University and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, while allowing other state schools to duplicate their programs, placing pressure on enrollment.
“The students are very actively advocating on behalf of all four of the HBCUs in Maryland,” said Zattura Sims-El, one of many advocates for HBCUs in the state. “The students from all four universities are communicating with each other for one purpose and that is to have Gov. Hogan withdraw the appeal — he and only he has the power and authority to do so.”
The coalition has chartered buses to leave from each of the four HBCU campuses in Maryland on the morning of the arguments.
Lately, Cheatham and others have ramped up the media, even lobbying the Rev. Al Sharpton for an appearance on his MSNBC television show.
“The HBCU coalition leading the lawsuit on behalf our HBCUs is doing a great service for our institutions and we, the University of Maryland Eastern Shore students, alumni and faculty were in Baltimore for trial hearings in the lower court,” said Deborah Powell-Hayman, president of the university’s alumni association.
“That court ruled in our favor and we intend to travel to Richmond, Virginia, to support the coalition as the case is argued before the U.S. Federal Court of Appeals,” Powell-Hayman said. “This case holds more promise than anything I know, for getting the number and mix of academic programs, facilities and funding to make our alma mater as competitive as traditionally white institutions in attracting quality students, faculty and staff and federal grants and contracts.”
The suit originally was filed in 2006.
Published reports suggest that over the years, the coalition has called for increased funding and merging the University of Baltimore with Morgan State, the state’s largest public HBCU, to achieve parity.
A year ago, a federal judge asked the state to remedy the lack of investment in Maryland’s HBCUs, ordering the state to establish a set of new, unique and high-demand programs at each historically black institution.
Despite that court order, settlement talks have stalled and Maryland hasn’t accepted the court-ordered remedies for HBCUs.
“While the Maryland HBCU case is still in mediation, due to the state’s refusal to accept the judge’s ruling, the Maryland HBCU Matters Coalition is hard at work,” Cheatham said.
In 2013, Judge Catherine Blake of the U.S. District Court of Maryland found the state in violation of 14th Amendment rights of its HBCU students and alumni. Her ruling said Maryland continues to operate vestiges of a de jure system of segregation, specifically by continuing a longstanding practice of duplicating academic programs offered at HBCU’s, rather than investing in making the HBCU programs attractive to a diverse range of students.
By June 2017, after initial failed mediation between HBCU advocates and the state of Maryland, Blake ordered the parties back into court.
In November 2017, the judge reportedly issued an order providing for an administrator known as a special master to coordinate a comprehensive plan ensuring Maryland’s HBCU’s would be home to high quality academic programs.
“The Plan should propose a set of new unique and/or high demand programs at each HBI, taking into account each HBI’s areas of strength, physical building capacity and the programmatic niches suggested by the plaintiff’s experts,” Blake wrote in the order.
Cheatham has continued to urge supporters to “call and get on every radio show possible.”
“Recruit students and alumni to make arrangements, today, to get on the bus on Tuesday, December 11, 2018, from their respective institutions,” he said. “For those not able to attend, please ask them to consider making a sizable contribution to help underwrite transportation and moderate meal cost.”