Morgan State University has objected to the creation of a doctoral program for aspiring community college administrators at the University of Maryland, University College, raising questions about how the state will handle competition between traditional universities and their online peers.
Morgan offers a similar degree and has told the Maryland Higher Education Commission, which would have to approve the program, that UMUC could lure students away, in violation of civil rights precedents set by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Though the standoff is reminiscent of Morgan's 2005 fight to prevent Towson University and the University of Baltimore from creating a joint MBA program, it's complicated by UMUC's status as a predominantly online institution.
The higher education commission has already said that UMUC can offer the program to students outside Maryland. So if Morgan wins this fight, a state university could offer a doctorate to students from 49 states but not to students from Maryland.
"It doesn't make sense," said William E. Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland. "I'm not aware of another instance in which an online degree has been considered duplicative of a face-to-face program. I think there's an important principle at stake here."
Secretary of Higher Education James E. Lyons Sr. said he will deliver his decision on the matter at the commission's next meeting in late September. UMUC could then appeal to the commission if Lyons decides against its request.
"This is a very complicated issue," Lyons said. "Far more so than the MBA issue with Towson."
Lyons said he is looking at many issues, from the possible demand for the program to the similarities between courses at each university. He asked the attorney general's office for an opinion on the civil rights implications.
He downplayed the potential impact on overall relations between traditional and online programs.
A Morgan spokesman did note that classes for the university's doctoral track meet on weekends and that the program, which has 69 students, is geared to working people, much like the proposed UMUC program.
Kirwan said UMUC created its program at the request of the American Association for Community Colleges, which forecasts a growing need for administrators because of booming enrollment and the impending retirement of many current campus leaders.
UMUC, based in Adelphi, is a perfect candidate to meet the need because of its flexible course schedules and worldwide reach, the chancellor said.
If Morgan's objection stands, Kirwan said, "it puts at risk the ability of an institution to deliver programs in areas where online degrees are needed."
One member of the Board of Regents, David Nevins, said a duplication dispute involving an online program was inevitable.
"All of us need to adapt for a changing world in which where one lives is less important and traditional classroom programs will be supplemented by online programs," he said. "It's probably good that this came up now, because we need to decide how we're going to deal with this as a state."
The Supreme Court has traditionally opposed the duplication of programs at historically black universities, arguing that it promotes segregation.
In the 1992 case United States v. Fordice, the Supreme Court held that, barring "sound educational justification," duplication of specialized and graduate academic programs at historically black and white colleges violates the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.
Morgan President Earl S. Richardson has used civil rights arguments to block more than a dozen proposed programs at area colleges in his 25 years at the university, including history and education programs at Towson and an electrical engineering major at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. His effort to block the Towson/UB MBA program was unsuccessful, though the battle spread to the state legislature and local courts.
Morgan's MBA program has actually grown since then, from fewer than 30 students in 2005 to 86 this year, though the Towson/UB program is much larger.
Richardson has always said that he's interested in protecting a principle, not in obstructing the plans of other universities.
"Until and unless you stop duplicating programs, you will continue to have a racially segregated program of higher education in Maryland," said Aderson B. Francois, a professor at the Howard University School of Law.
Francois is assisting a coalition of Morgan alumni and others in a court case that seeks to eliminate the Towson/UB MBA program on civil rights grounds. Though he didn't know the specifics of the UMUC issue, he said he sees no reason why an online program would be different than a face-to-face one under the Fordice precedent.
"Online or not, all that matters is whether it's a non-core program that would duplicate an existing program" at a historically black college or university, he said.