Online-Course Limits, Rooted in a Racial Past, May Raise Issues in Several States

Marc Parry, Chronicle of Higher Education, January 24, 2010

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{snip} Morgan State University, a historically black institution in Baltimore . . . objected to the UMUC [University of Maryland University College] effort because it would duplicate a similar program [in community-college administration] that Morgan State offers as a blend of face-to-face and online course work.

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{snip} In the 1992 college-desegregation case United States v. Fordice, the U.S. Supreme Court said states should make an effort to prevent predominantly white institutions from setting up programs that compete with public black colleges. Another Maryland public institution competing with Morgan’s program would violate the Fordice decision, says Marybeth Gasman, an expert on black colleges at the University of Pennsylvania.

Morgan State is one of the few black colleges that offers a doctoral program for higher-education administrators. James E. Lyons Sr., Maryland’s secretary of higher education, says he decided to restrict the University of Maryland University College degree to protect a unique program, not to assault online education.

“I’ve had people say to me, ‘Well, how in the world could you make a decision that denies a school the opportunity to serve its own state population?'” he says. “But they’re not looking at it in the historical context. This is a very profound higher-ed desegregation issue.”

Online education appears to be a new arena for this fight. Mr. Lyons concedes that the conflict may carry national implications “to the extent that program duplication has historically been viewed as something that takes place between schools in close proximity,” not as competition with online programs. Similar situations could emerge in states like Mississippi or Texas, Ms. Gasman says.

That prospect worries some distance-education leaders, who see the online medium as a means of reaching an audience not served by classroom-based learning.

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“This is more about historical institutional issues in Maryland, with roots in real or perceived racism at the core,” says Janet K. Poley, president of the American Distance Education Consortium. {snip}

Within Maryland, however, Chancellor William E. Kirwan, of the University System of Maryland, worries that the precedent may prevent the state from responding adequately to its need for work-force-related degrees, if future online programs could be considered duplicative. {snip}

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For now, budding community-college leaders in Maryland who can’t study at UMUC, or spend some time physically at Morgan State, are out of luck. {snip}

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