• August 29, 2015

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

Last week, 25 new students began training at University of Maryland University College to become community-college administrators.

But none of them live in Maryland. In fact, the university has been barred from offering this online doctoral degree to state residents.

The bizarre situation stems from a turf struggle between UMUC and Morgan State University, a historically black institution in Bal­timore that objected to the UMUC effort because it would duplicate a similar program that Morgan State offers as a blend of face-to-face and online course work.

The dispute raises unprecedented questions for distance education. Could it stunt online learning's growth in Maryland? And could the Maryland decision lead to similar squabbles elsewhere?

Some context: 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.

Other experts say such worries are unfounded, because the UMUC-Morgan State dust-up is unique. For one thing, a close parallel could arise only in states dealing with the vestiges of segregation. For another, few other states have public institutions with the online firepower of UMUC, a university where most of the more than 90,000 students take at least one course online each year.

"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. It is "very unlikely to be duplicated elsewhere."

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. Northeastern Maryland has no four-year college, he says, yet a planned military-base restructuring will drive thousands of people to move there. The state needs online classes to help serve them.

Mr. Kirwan and the system's Board of Regents have asked the Maryland Higher Education Commission to reconsider its decision and permit UMUC to offer the doctoral degree to Maryland residents. He is awaiting their response.

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. But the virtual classroom doors may soon open. Earl S. Richardson, president of Morgan State, says his institution hopes to have a fully online version of its program available by the fall.


1. nacrandell - January 25, 2010 at 07:58 am

Is it about racism and history or about a monopoly on services and brand recognition? And, how does the Board of Regent's decision serve the people of Maryland?

2. roberto1982 - January 25, 2010 at 09:34 am

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3. intered - January 25, 2010 at 09:45 am

This tempest in a teapot is likely to affect no more than a handful of students. That said, the actions of this clearly unintelligent board have secured a guarantee that a few more students will attend an online program headquartered in some other state, most likely a for-profit.

Too clever by half is the kindest thing one can say about this board. They have harmed their state.

Robert W Tucker
InterEd, Inc.

4. roro1618 - January 25, 2010 at 10:59 am

Tax-paying state residents are denied the chance to attend a school that their tax dollars pay for (even if qualified for the program) because of segregatioh on the basis of race. MD students should protest mightily, this is a short-sighted decision that sends MD potential tuition dollars to another state. How interesting in light of MD's recent furloughs of state workers and budget problems. BTW, I am an AA persoh.

5. haohtt - January 25, 2010 at 11:20 am

Reading the formal statement about the situation on Morgan State's website is a very eye-opening experience, but not in the way that the author of the statement would have hoped. The author alleges that "challenges to academic program duplication are not a matter of historically black institutions seeking protection against their traditionally white competitors," however Morgan State's statement is nothing more than an appeal for protection against its traditionally white competitors (not just UMUC). Morgan State's statement that UMUC's program was "similar in course content, targeted student clientele, employment opportunities and delivery format" to Morgan's is simply disingenuous (if not dishonest), given Morgan's position that Maryland's Governor and Legislature "provide, as soon as the budget allows, funding sufficient for Morgan to deliver the program in whatever format necessary to insure access wherever necessary, be it in-state or out-of-state." Really? Why ask for extra money if, in fact, Morgan's program is already similar in "delivery format" to UMUC's? There is no indication or Morgan's website it offers any fully online degrees. I also can find Morgan's stats about the effect of competition on degree programs in the 1970s is laughable, given that online programs have eliminated the geographical constraints. Finally, if Morgan State is really serious that "Maryland taxpayers lose anytime an academic program is unnecessarily duplicated between two publicly-supported institutions," then I would expect that Morgan State would be true and consistent to its own views by eliminating Morgan degree programs that duplicate those of other publicly-supposed institutions.

6. mikeatle - January 25, 2010 at 11:21 am

"University politics are vicious precisely because the stakes are so small." --Henry Kissinger

7. intered - January 25, 2010 at 01:17 pm

Did Henry say that? I never knew the original source. Do you know on what occasion he said it?

8. recent_grad - January 25, 2010 at 01:32 pm

Morgan had a similar battle with Towson a few years ago regarding the latter developing an MBA program. What happened to the idea that competition breeds success/excellence/innovation/etc. (take your pick)? Higher education should not be about placing restrictions on one institution or another so that all schools are equal, but encouraging schools to improve and enhance their programs by allowing, well, competition. The most important factor that a potential student considers in his/her college choice is academic reputation and course offerings. Followed by location, cost, and size of school. But really, the academic reputation is key because having a respectable degree is important to college-goers.

Along those lines, students should have options for what schools they chose. I know I visited dozens of colleges and universities before deciding on one. You shouldn't have to say "Well, I want to study X, and I'm staying in state, so I guess I'm going to Y University." Without looking at Morgan specifically (because I don't know the caliber of it's administrator's doctorate and it could be fantastic), what if the program is terrible? You, as a student have no other option and the school has no real incentive to improve said program. The simple fact the UMUC's format is different from Morgan's allows for another alternative for students who can't commute even if we disregard the idea that students should have options.

I do agree with Morgan on the point that allowing a university program that blocks residents of the state drains money from taxpayers without any added benefit. The Maryland Higher Education Commission needs to decide if the school can offer the program...or if it can't. It should be an all-or-nothing program in order to be fair to Maryland residents.

9. 11272784 - January 25, 2010 at 06:02 pm

Attempts to limit the reach of online programs are doomed. it's like trying to hold back the tide. Local programs need to compate, and if they can't, they will ahve to re-design or fold. There is NO justification for preventing student access to fully online programs, and it won't be long before someone sues because they can't attend the Morgan State program and want access to the UMUC program. I'm on their side.

10. guest2000 - January 25, 2010 at 06:19 pm

I have not participated in the Morgan program, but am at a CC which has a "relationship" with Morgan. A number of our faculty, staff and adminstrators (at least 30) have enrolled in and many have completed the program. Our "relationship" is such that Morgan faculty came to our campus and taught here because so much of their enrollment was our faculty and administration.

There are several issues:
1. When a graduate class cohort is the same students,for three years, most from the same institution, there is no cross-pollination of ideas that is essential to learning. Rather, the primary source of examples, inspiration, and insight would be individuals interacting only with individuals from their own institution. Incestuous.

2. The institution picked up most of the tab for the degree; therefore, Morgan has a built-in revenue source. In these hard economic times, none of us can blame Morgan for fighting for exclusivity, but let's be candid: the issue is money, not race.

3. A degree in "community college administration" is questionable to begin with. I've taught in CC's and 4 years, and quite frankly, higher ed is higher ed. I think the Morgan program was intentionally designed to target and market to the CCs in Maryland, and will be of little interest to anyone outside the state.

4. My CC has funded at least 30 faculty/staff/admin for this program. Not all have completed the program, but many have. Virtually none of them will move beyond my CC, but it will allow them to advance within my CC, and to get a pay jump upon completion of the degree. In that respect, the Morgan program is similar to any higher ed trade school.

5. We refer to the program and the degree as the "match book cover degree."

Before anyone yells racism at me: Wait until your CC is flooded with graduates of the same degree program. They're all in the same box, wearing the same goggles, in a time of peril for education. You wouldn't like it either.

11. amnirov - January 25, 2010 at 09:14 pm

This is the dumbest thing in dumb county.

12. wmartin46 - January 25, 2010 at 09:29 pm

UMUC should "bite the bullet", "damn the torpedoes", offer the on-line classes and let the chips fall where they may. If it means a trip back to the Supreme Court, well it's only a short drive from College Park to downtown DC.

"Stare Decisis", or no, SCOTUS needs to have another look at this.

13. cristysugarman - January 25, 2010 at 09:37 pm

Marshall, Clark, Parks, etc would be ashamed of you, UMUC and Morgan State leaders. Sort this embarassing and oppressive nonsense out right now. Do you think this does anything for higher education as a bastion of democracy in the United States? What kind of example do you think you are setting? Even if this is a storm in a proverbial teacup, you are undermining the fraility of equality in education that your visionary predecessors strove to strengthen. Get a grip. Collaborate.

14. 22216726 - January 26, 2010 at 12:10 pm

As a consultant that works nationally and interntionally with the two-year sector, we are seeing the need for a significant # of academically prepared candidates for the presidency of this critical segment of the higher education community. This circumstance is fostered by first, the significant role which these institutions are being asked during these times of severe economic challenge AND the fact that 65+% of the sitting presidents will retire within the next five years with a very limited pipeline of adequately prepared replacements. The UMUC program has been specifically designed with this broader audience in mind with a delivery system and course content that meets the new, emerging needs of these institutions and the individuals crazy enough to consider the presidency as a career path.

Unfortunately, the Morgan State program is rooted in the past with respect to program, delivery system, and reputation. It would interesting to see how many of the graduates of this program currently serve as presidents anywhere. Guest2000 has very adequately summarized the nature of this "match book program" and it appears that this is really a debate over $$ and not academic value to the field.

Hopefully, appropriate state authorities will have just a bit of common sense and allow citizens of Maryland to join recuits from the rest of the country to take advantage of UMUC's unique response to this need within our countries' two year colleges.

15. eccmqv - January 26, 2010 at 01:09 pm

Interesting article and comments. The stakes here are no less than the rising insolvency of the state's fiscal outlay, efficiency in resource management and basic decency and fairness. No amount of grandstanding and efforts to trivialize reality will change the historical facts behind this case. An earlier comment refers to the duplication case against Towson. Its a shame the commentator in this case refuse to mention that duplication of courses (in universities within 10 miles apart, both state sponsored) is a waste of tax payer resources, against the stated policy of the state higher education commission and a ploy to further weaken an already weak state icon. Without learning from history, we risk repeating it, and in this case the MHEC is simply repeating its mistakes from the Towson saga.

Higher education politics in Maryland, one of the most segregated states in the union's history, is quit interesting to say the list and casual observers may be fooled into believing the cover stories. You have to know the history and be informed about the core issues at the heart of the discussion to take a truly informed position.

Duplicating Morgan's position at UMUC does not advance the state's interest in anyway, neither does it advance education....

16. panacea - January 26, 2010 at 02:49 pm

eccmqv: I'm from Maryland, and studied Maryland history as a grad student. I'm well aware of the racial problems the state has had.

That doesn't change these facts:

1) a doctoral degree in community college administration is, as guest2000 stated, of questionable value. A good administrator can get the same skills from any program in management, and must hone them through experience in the field before taking on a college presidency.

2) This really is about the money. Yes, Maryland has a lot of four year institutions. So what? If I am a student at Townson State, and I take courses at Morgan, they may not transfer into my degree program. Commuting in the Baltimore area is a PITA; I'd much rather take classes at the school I'm actually enrolled in.

3) If Morgan's program is so great, it will attract students regardless of whether UMUC offers a similar program or not. If it can't, then maybe the school should re-evaluate how it is taught, or whether it is worth keeping.

Playing the race card is crap.

17. zxcvb1 - January 28, 2010 at 10:17 am

Panacea's claim of studying Maryland history and of "playing the race card" is perplexing in light of the historical and present-day effects of de jure racial segregation in the state of Maryland. Panacea's use of the term "crap" reveals instead an emotional, ill-informed and vocabulary-challenged response to serious legal and civil rights issues that affect the State of Maryland and the nation.

A serious examination of the history and law regarding race-based segregation in Maryland reveals that the ability of Maryland historically black institutions to attract students (regardless of their race) is directly linked to the history of inequitable funding to those institutions by the State. It is actually quite remarkable that HBIs have performed so well in light of the documented resource inequities.

It is troubling to read the commenters that are openly advocating and supporting the violation of federal and state laws. While it may be an ignorance of the law and history in this regard that has generated some of the comments, ignorance of the law is no defense and education would rememdy that concern. For those knowingly advocating continued racial discrimination in violation of the law, well, it is not surprising that those sentiments are being cloaked in non-racial terms.

18. jdxxxe - February 01, 2010 at 10:36 pm

Regarding #6 and #7 above, Google's ultimate take on this issue following a host of alternative citations is : "Verdict: An old academic saw that may have originated with Woodrow Wilson but was put in modern play by Wallace Sayre." (http://ask.metafilter.com/80812/Academic-politics-are-vicious-because-the-stakes-are-so-low). Interesting -- it's a quote that I have used often, but was certainly never certain of its origins. Now that I know it dates to Woodrow Wilson, one of the most despicable presidents ever to occupy the Oval Office, I will moderate my use of it.

In this case, of course, the stakes are anything but low. So the point is moot in any event. Personally, I've never observed that the stakes had to be low before academic politics became vicious -- they seem to be pretty much at that level under all conditions of stake-ness.

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