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Morgan State University Fights Online Ph.D. at Rival School

There is a predicament afoot in the state of Maryland at the moment. University of Maryland, University College (UMUC), has a new degree program in the works, and neighboring Morgan State University is none too pleased about the matter. Now, according to the Baltimore Sun, the problem is being taken to the courts and raising some perplexing questions about how to safely maintain the delicate standing between online programs and their brick-and-mortar counterparts.

The program in question is a doctoral-level education administration degree, specifically for aspiring community college administrators. The catch? Morgan State University offers a nearly identical degree which, though held in traditional classrooms, meets on weekends and is geared toward working adult students in much the same way as UMUC's proposed program. Thusly, Morgan State officials worry that UMUC's new program could be used to lure students away, a tactic that violates a 1992 U.S. Supreme Court precedent, in which the court ruled 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."

While the precedent carries substantial weight, this particular battle is complicated by the fact that UMUC's program operates primarily online, making it available to students far outside of Maryland's borders. "If Morgan wins this fight," reads the article, "a state university could offer a doctorate to students from 49 states but not to students from Maryland." It's a conundrum to be sure, and one that has many officials scratching their heads at how to handle the situation.

William E. Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland (the web of state regents under which UMUC operates) is one of those perplexed officials. "It doesn't make sense," he told The Sun. "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." He also explained how UMUC's program was developed at the request of the American Association for Community Colleges to fill a need for administrators to handle the recent community college boom -- adding that, if Morgan State's block is successful, "it puts at risk the ability of an institution to deliver programs in areas where online degrees are needed."

On the other side of the coin, things are not so cut and dry. Earl S. Richardson, president of Morgan State -- notedly also a public institution, though not governed by the University System of Maryland, has reportedly used the civil rights precedent to block "more than a dozen proposed programs at area colleges in his 25 years at the university," a precedent in itself that may cause the University System to bristle. However, according to Richardson, the tactics have not been employed to obstruct other schools' plans, but out of principle in an area that tends to remain scarred by segregation despite the school's best efforts. Says Aderson B. Francois, a professor at the Howard University School of Law who is helping Morgan State with their case: "Until and unless you stop duplicating programs, you will continue to have a racially segregated program of higher education in Maryland."

The decision on whether to accept or deny Morgan State's plea will go through at the end of September, when Secretary of Higher Education James E. Lyons Sr. will deliver his verdict at the next higher education commission meeting. While the issue is definitely complicated, a few officials note that it was inevitable, and representative of the changing face of education. "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," Regents board member David Nevins told the Sun. "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." And when the state decides, it may help to set yet another precedent for an entire country breaking new ground in the boundaries of online education.

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