Martin Ngwa, a student at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, plans to go into social work after graduation — though his school doesn't offer the major.
Thanks to an unusual partnership between UMES, an historically black institution, and Salisbury University, its traditionally white neighbor, Ngwa is earning dual degrees in sociology and social work.
The opportunity to take classes on both Eastern Shore campuses is the result of several decades of collaboration — a partnership that was praised this week in a federal court opinion that found some Maryland policies still promote "separate but equal" colleges and universities.
The schools, founded years ago as segregated facilities roughly 12 miles apart, are still largely split by race. But UMES, where 15 percent of the students identify themselves as white, is the most integrated of any of the state's historically black schools because of the alliance.
"It's always been my dream to help people," said Ngwa. "With this program, I'm getting even more exposure to different ideas about the field through all the different people in the programs."
A lack of collaboration at the other public, historically black institutions — Bowie, Coppin and Morgan state universities — contributes to poor enrollment and diversity because they lose students to white counterparts that have duplicated their programs, wrote U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Blake. White enrollment at those schools was below 5 percent, according to Blake.
UMES has two dozen distinct programs that Salisbury doesn't, including golf management and hotel and restaurant management. The schools also work together in many areas. They share resources and research projects. They allow students from one institution to attend classes and events at the other, and they work to avoid duplicating their partner's specialty programs, so each maintains a separate identity to attract students.
Their efforts could serve as a model for other state schools as they try to rid themselves of the last vestiges of segregation in higher education. The judge, in her ruling, urged historically black institutions and state officials into mediation.
UMES and Salisbury officials said it takes hard work. Their partnership hasn't always been an easy or natural bond, and challenges — cultural, logistical and financial — persist.
"People have to really want to do this" for it to work, said Karen Verbeke, director of teacher education at UMES. She's worked there for two dozen years, nurturing a collaborative Master of Arts in teaching program between the universities. "It takes time to do this, it takes energy to do this, and people have to be willing to see what are the greater goods."
Defining roles, missions
Though the U.S. Supreme Court struck down "separate but equal" facilities as unconstitutional in 1954, Maryland clung to the segregated system for years afterward.
In 1969, the U.S. Department of Education notified the state that it was one of 10 still operating a "racially segregated system of education," and several task forces and plans would be developed over the next several decades to work on solving the problem.
Meanwhile, the two Eastern Shore schools were struggling. They were geographically isolated, each was historically underfunded compared with its peers, and their futures were in question. A proposal to merge the schools was floated in the mid-1970s, but the legislature declined to vote on it without more study.
"It turned out that it may have been the best thing that ever happened to UMES," the late William P. Hytche, who was president of UMES at the time, wrote in "Polishing the Diamond," a history of the school.
An attorney named John W.T. "Jack" Webb was charged with heading a local task force to evaluate a potential merger. Webb's team ultimately rejected the idea in 1977, in part to preserve UMES' racial identity.
Instead, it recommended an operating framework that would set the tone for today's collaboration, by ensuring that the universities complemented each other more than they competed.
"We believe the educational needs of the Lower Eastern Shore, at this stage of the area's history, require two separate institutions, but with specific roles and missions clearly defined to prevent duplication of resources and to maximize choice based on the quality of program," Webb's commission wrote.
It was a philosophy inherent to most desegregation plans, though only the Eastern Shore schools would eventually pull it off, largely because of their geographic isolation.
Elsewhere, large investments in traditionally white schools — particularly Towson University and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, Blake wrote — would offset gains at historically black schools like Coppin and Morgan in Baltimore, allowing a segregated system to endure.