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

January 24, 2010

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.