An advocacy group for historically Black colleges is concerned that Maryland’s approval of a doctoral business analytics program at Towson University violates a landmark 2021 settlement by duplicating a program at nearby Morgan State University.

The group says it is weighing whether to file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education over the Maryland Higher Education Commission’s action.

Advocates for Maryland’s historically Black colleges and universities, or HBCUs, shared their concerns in a four-page letter to Gov. Wes Moore, MHEC members, MHEC Interim Secretary Sanjay Rai, Appointments Secretary Tisha Edwards, Senate President Bill Ferguson and Sen. Charles Sydnor III.

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

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Towson University’s request for the Ph.D. program in business analytics was initially denied by Emily Dow, an assistant secretary of academic affairs at the MHEC. Dow wrote in April that Towson’s proposed program could cause “demonstrable harm” to Morgan State and lead to a shift in enrollment from the historically Black college to Towson.

In June, however, the commission voted to overturn Dow’s decision.

“The decision is based upon the determination of a majority of the Commissioners in attendance that Towson’s proposed program is not unreasonably duplicative of Morgan’s Ph.D. in Business Administration generally or of the concentration in Supply Chain and Logistics Management,” Mary Pat Seurkamp, chair of the commission, wrote in a June 28 letter to Towson University’s interim president, Melanie Perreault. “The majority found that while some elements of the programs were similar, ultimately the two programs have distinct differences in their curricula.”

The commission continued, “This finding was made with the understanding that Towson’s admission criteria for the program are geared toward students who have a STEM background. Furthermore, we found that there was insufficient evidence of demonstrable harm to the existing program at Morgan.”

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

“TU’s STEM-centered Ph.D in Business Analytics differs in admission requirements, course content and program outcomes from Morgan State’s excellent Ph.D in Business Administration,” he wrote. “TU took great effort to try to address any concerns as directed through the program review process. We look forward to continuing to work in collaboration with our fellow state institutions to serve the citizens of Maryland in fulfilling workforce needs.”

The advocacy group’s letter represents 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.

Blake said her group was “appalled” by the MHEC’s decision, especially given that Dow had previously “made it clear” that the issue of STEM was not written in the original proposal by Towson, and thus should not have been mentioned as a reason for Towson’s approval.

“There was nothing in the proposal by Towson saying they would be using STEM,” Blake said. “I can’t say where they came up with STEM.”

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Dow referred all comments to a spokeswoman for the commission. She declined to address questions pertaining to the particulars of the Towson proposal.

“MHEC is engaged in a comprehensive process to ensure that the students we serve are provided with every opportunity to achieve their higher education goals,” MHEC spokeswoman Rhonda Wardlaw wrote in an email.

Wardlaw added, “MHEC is working with counsel to conduct a review of the process in regulation to examine the issues and questions surrounding the outcome of the June 14 meeting. MHEC is also eager to engage with the Maryland General Assembly’s workgroup that will provide recommendations regarding the MHEC academic program review process, due December 1 of this year.”

Recommendations from the work group may result in proposed statutory or regulatory changes, which would be reviewed and implemented by MHEC and higher education institutions across the state, according to Wardlaw, who added that the group’s first meeting was to be held Aug. 14.

“We look forward to working collaboratively with all stakeholders to reform and improve the academic program review process and enhance transparency in the coming months,” Wardlaw added.

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Blake questioned why students at Towson University cannot be part of the existing program at Morgan State University.

“I don’t know how Black or white students would be harmed if the business administration program was housed at Morgan State,” she said. “This is exactly what the federal judge ruled on. You are setting up a dual system.”

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.

Asked if Black students and others at Towson University would have been harmed by the commission denying the program, Blake said they simply could have taken classes at Morgan State. Blake also said that adding more white students to Morgan State would not be an issue for that institution.

“I don’t know that that would be an issue in and of itself as long as the institution remains a majority Black university,” she said. “HBCUs have always welcomed white students and diversity.”

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Blake’s organization is composed of a dozen advocates and HBCUs, along with non-HBCU graduates.

A graduate of Morgan State University, Blake said that the group’s objection is bigger than her alma mater. “We would be standing up for any HBCU in Maryland if they were facing this exact same situation,” she said.

Morgan State University is currently seeking to address its program duplication claim and the MHEC’s subsequent response through elected officials, according to Larry Jones, an assistant vice president at Morgan State.

David Wilson, the president of Morgan State, has met with elected leaders in Annapolis and has been communicating with representatives from Maryland’s Legislative Black Caucus, Jones added.

“Morgan State University is currently awaiting further guidance and an official response from MHEC in hopes of receiving a definitive resolution to this matter,” Jones said.

Jamie Abell, assistant director for media relations at Towson University, declined to comment on the case. She referred The Baltimore Banner to a letter written by the MHEC supporting its program.

John-John Williams IV is a diversity, equity and inclusion reporter at The Baltimore Banner. A native of Syracuse, N.Y. and a graduate of Howard University, he has lived in Baltimore for the past 17 years.

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