Members of the executive committee of the national law firm Kirkland & Ellis donated more than $12 million to historically Black institutions and advocacy organizations this month, a transformative gift both in number and impact.
Dillard University, Morgan State University’s Robert M. Bell Center for Civil Rights in Education, and the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education (NAFEO) were among the high-profile beneficiaries of the donation. Funds for the gift were a portion of the legal fees the firm collected in a landmark lawsuit on behalf of students and alumni of Maryland for HBCUs.
They sued the state for discriminatory program duplication and associated resource disparities. Finally, after many years, they forced a settlement engineered by state lawmakers with the schools totaling more than $577 million in additional appropriations over ten years.
The Kirkland & Ellis gift shows several important things about the value and future of HBCUs. First, black colleges are essential in cementing political and cultural frameworks benefiting Black and other minority groups. For all of the credit HBCU students earn for their roles as creators of the American Civil Rights Movement, several landmark cases in higher education have revolved around HBCUs’ and their example of the failings and promise of racial equity.
The Maryland HBCU lawsuit extends cases like Ayers v. Fordice, Knight v. Alabama, the University of Tennessee-Nashville merger into Tennessee State University, and consent decrees across the south in states like Louisiana, Florida, and North Carolina.
This lineage is important to highlight because, for the first time in modern HBCU history, the institutions are developing infrastructure to prevent discriminatory funding and policymaking, rather than solely relying on court intervention once significant damage has been done to them. Funded scholarships will support the training of civil rights and social justice lawyers graduating from HBCUs. Resources will also allow Black colleges to convene national discussions on racial equity and policymaking.
Faculty at Dillard and Morgan will have seed funding and institutional support for teaching these topics at HBCUs — work that their centers have long been doing but haven’t had the money to bring to national scale and impact.
But there also is a certain magic about this gift beyond seed funding for community and institutional justice. It teaches an important lesson for antagonistic lawmakers about the danger of promoting or ignoring discriminatory practices in higher education.
According to the legislative agreement, the money awarded in this settlement cannot be used to replace or supplant regular state appropriations for Bowie State University, Coppin State University, Morgan State, and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore. So for the next decade, HBCUs will finally receive a fraction of what was denied to them for generations.
Additionally, the award of $577 million doesn’t quite represent the full financial impact of the settlement. In 2019, representatives for Maryland Governor Larry Hogan were quoted publicly in estimating that funding for new construction, hiring, and program development appropriated to the four HBCUs throughout the 15-year lawsuit totaled more than $1.5 billion in investment.
Consider the math; the state spent $1.5 billion on HBCUs to get out of a lawsuit asking for $2 billion in total, only to concede $577 million more in defeat.
The victory doesn’t represent an end, but in fact, a somber beginning. There are grumblings in places like Kentucky and Georgia, where lawmakers are challenging the industrial necessity of public HBCUs. Private HBCUs remain vulnerable to enrollment revenue shortfalls and accreditation standards, along with the growth of predominantly white institutions sharing their geographic footprints.
They may even face opposition from presidents, as was the case in Maryland with Morgan State’s president, who covertly worked against the best interest of the lawsuit and plaintiffs.
But if one law firm can turn pro bono counsel into a transformative gift advancing legal protection for Black colleges and their interests, then there is hope that HBCUs can cultivate similar partnerships and alliances across a wide range of industries into the future.