Maryland Attorney General Anthony Brown has rejected a state commission’s decision to let Towson University establish a Ph.D. program that critics said would duplicate one at Morgan State University, a historically Black university.

Brown wrote Thursday that the Maryland Higher Education Commission did not have enough members present when it voted to overturn a decision by Emily Dow, an assistant secretary of academic affairs at the MHEC, to deny Towson University’s request to create a doctoral program in business analytics.

Advocates for historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) claimed the program would hurt Morgan State, which has a business administration program.

“Because the Commission’s June 14 vote to reverse the Secretary and approve Towson’s proposed program was a ‘formal action’ that did not receive the necessary number of votes, the vote was of no legal effect, and the Secretary’s decision remains in place for the time being,” Brown wrote to the commission. “As I read the Commission’s regulations, the Commission is likely required to meet again and attempt to resolve Towson’s request for review, with the requisite number of votes for a decision one way or the other. Although this is not an official opinion of the Attorney General, I hope it is helpful to you.”

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In a written statement, the University System of Maryland wrote: “Today, the Commission received that advice, which concluded that the Commission had not followed the proper process and, thus, that the Commission’s decision was of no legal effect.”

“The Office of the Attorney General further found that the review process set forth in the Commission’s regulations likely require the Commission to meet again to vote on the academic program under review,” the statement continued.

The university system said it was “dedicated to ensuring that all procedural requirements are met when engaging in academic program review.”

Calling it an “equitable outcome,” Morgan State University President David K. Wilson praised the recent turn of events. He thanked Brown and the commission for “reviewing the circumstances surrounding the unreasonable duplication of Morgan’s longstanding, high-quality and affordable Business Administration Ph.D. program.”

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“We look forward to moving beyond this episode and continuing to focus our attention on the more than 140 academic degree programs at Morgan, many of them offered exclusively at our University,” Wilson wrote in a prepared statement. “Morgan is moving forward, unfettered, on the path to very high research university status, dedicated to examining many of the intractable challenges of our day and committed to providing research-based solutions that will benefit our city, state and nation.”

Advocates for Maryland’s HBCUs had shared their concerns about the proposed Towson doctoral program in a four-page letter to Gov. Wes Moore, MHEC’s members and its interim secretary, and top legislative leaders.

The group said it was concerned that the state commission had approved a program at Towson that “duplicates a well-established, functionally identical business analytics administration program at Morgan State University,” according to spokeswoman Sharon Blake.

Blake said Thursday night that the group was “pleased with the collective efforts of Maryland leadership to uphold the Coalition’s case to preclude unnecessary program duplication.”

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“This incident points to the need for ongoing oversight and advocacy to ensure equity and parity in Maryland higher education,” she wrote. “We want to emphasize that the settlement of this case, The Coalition For Equity and Excellence in Maryland Higher Education, et al. v. Maryland Higher Education Commission, et al. is based on Federal Law; this case carries the weight and equivalency of Brown v. Board of Education for HBCUs.”

The Legislative Black Caucus of Maryland also praised Brown’s opinion. “We will continue to work alongside our Maryland HBCUs to advocate for equity,” the caucus wrote. “Fairness and transparency are absolutely essential to the program distribution process as the state continues to repair the damage of past program duplication following the 2021 lawsuit settlement.”

The advocacy group’s letter represented its first objection since a 2021 federal ruling that Maryland had to pay $577 million to its four historically Black colleges and universities, settling a 13-year lawsuit alleging that the state underfunded those schools while investing in predominantly white schools.

Black students represent 27.9% of Towson University’s student body while white students account for 45.6%, according to statistics provided by the university.

Sean Welsh, a vice president at Towson University, stressed the differences between the schools’ programs in an email Tuesday evening.

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In response to Brown’s Thursday statement, Welsh wrote: “As we have since the start, TU will continue to follow the process and guidance outlined by MHEC. The finding of this administrative error on MHEC’s part does not indicate that TU’s STEM-based Business Analytics Ph.D. program is in any way duplicative of any other program, nor does it have any impact upon the merits for the program’s approval. We remain absolutely committed to supporting those students who have, in good faith, enrolled in this program as classes are set to begin in less than two weeks. When students lose opportunities, there are no winners.”