Coppin to break ground on $80 million science center

Coppin State University is moving forward with an $80 million Science and Technology Center that it hopes will boost sagging enrollment despite concerns that the West Baltimore school will not have enough money to operate the building.

A ceremonial groundbreaking is scheduled May 14, though demolition has been completed and utility work is under way, said Maqbool Patel, Coppin's associate vice president for administration and finance. Completion is expected in early 2015.

"We have to create an area that attracts students and faculty," said Patel, describing the quad-like atmosphere the building will create on the south side of West North Avenue at Thomas Avenue. It will go up next to the university's Health and Human Services Building, which opened in 2008.

The administration sees the 150,000-square-foot facility as vital to increasing enrollment and putting the historically black university on sound financial footing. Improving resources for science, technology and math programs is another step toward remedying years of "deferred development" caused by the state underfunding the school, according to the university.

Built to accommodate 6,000 students, Coppin now has about 3,800. Mainly due to a shortfall in tuition revenue, Coppin had an operating deficit of $1.4 million in fiscal year 2012, according to the Department of Legislative Services, which analyzes the budgets of each university in the state system. To balance the 2013 budget, Coppin eliminated 39 positions.

In February 2012, the faculty voted no confidence in then-President Reginald Avery after criticizing his management of the school's budget. Coppin has the lowest six-year graduation rate — 15 percent — in the state's university system.

William E. Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland, convened a committee in December to evaluate Coppin. Avery resigned in January. The committee recently heard complaints from students about the state of the school, ranging from teachers reading from textbooks to dorms without hot water. Its assessment is expected this month.

The classrooms and labs in the new Science and Technology Center will replace dated facilities at the Percy Julian Building, which was built in 1967 and renovated in 1991. The new building will house the school's natural science, math and computer science departments as well as its information technology division.

Coppin plans to move its business and graduate studies schools into the Julian building, which is inadequate for lab-style teaching.

Ziphezinhle Ncube, a senior majoring in biology, said the science labs at her high school in Montgomery County were better equipped than Coppin's.

Ncube said she was able to get into medical school — she's going to Loma Linda University in California. But some students who did not have lab exposure outside Coppin were not as fortunate, she said.

"I see the drive, I see the passion, but they weren't given the right tools to get there," Ncube said.

In 2001, a study team assembled at the request of the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights to identify ways to improve Maryland's historically black colleges and universities determined that the Julian building was inadequate. The team concluded that the school "experienced drastic underfunding," causing its facilities to fall behind.

In 2004, the Baltimore architectural firm Richter Cornbrooks Gribble Inc. undertook a "functionality assessment" of the Julian building and determined that the science labs are "undersized and poorly designed, creating hazardous and inefficient teaching environments," according to written testimony submitted by Mortimer Neufville, Coppin's interim president, to the Maryland House Capital Budget Subcommittee in March.

Although the new science building is a "commitment identified in the state's partnership agreement with the Office for Civil Rights," the Department of Legislative Services said, it worries that the school's finances are not strong enough to pay the estimated $4 million a year operating costs for the high-tech building.

In its budget analysis, the department said it "remains concerned about [Coppin's] ability to support the annual operating costs associated with another major building on campus, particularly in light of the impact that the cost of operating new facilities has had in recent years on core services, such as instruction and student support."

Neufville, in his written testimony, said he expects the building's operating expenses to be paid by the state.

The new building should improve the school's financial health by supporting enrollment growth, Patel said. That, in turn, could reduce its requests for operating support from the General Assembly.

"Every student that is coming to Coppin will benefit from this building," Patel said. "If the student population increases, [the school's need for state support] will ease."

Mark Beck, director of the university system's office of capital planning who is acting as Coppin's vice president for administration and finance, said that when the Assembly makes a commitment to a new university building, it will support operating costs.

"Our experience has been the state has been very good about stepping in to provide operating funds," Beck said.

Beck said the Department of Legislative Services' concerns about Coppin's operating budget are being eased.

Neufville has made balancing the operating budget a top priority, he said, and the school is on its way to demonstrating to elected officials that it can be an efficient and effective steward of state funds. Coppin will do everything it can to reduce the burden its operating expenses bear on the state treasury, he said.

"Coppin will not be the same university it has been," Beck said. "This is a turning point in the university."

About $60 million was allocated in the 2014 state capital budget for equipment and to finish construction of the building. In the 2013 budget, $61 million was disbursed for acquisition of land — more than 200 properties were purchased to make way for the new building — and initial preparation of the roughly 12-acre site.

When complete, $80 million will have gone into the building itself, Patel said.

Dr. Samuel Ross, CEO of Bon Secours Baltimore Health System and a member of Coppin's Board of Visitors, said he sees the building as a way to improve student recruitment and faculty retention. But it also will help reduce a persistent racial gap in science, math and technology fields, he said.

"If we're committed to addressing disparities, it's important for places like Coppin to grow these students," Ross said. The building, he said, will "be part of a long-term commitment."

Coppin's Science and Technology Center

Cost: $80 million

Expected completion: January 2015

Location: South side of West North Avenue at Thomas Avenue

Space: 150,000-square-foot building will contain, among other spaces: 24 labs, a lecture hall, an open computer lab, two general classrooms, three computer lab classrooms, a nanotechnology research lab and a research greenhouse.

Use: Science (including biology, chemistry and physics), math and computer science departments will be housed there. The dentistry, pharmacy and medicine programs also will use the building.

Architect: Cannon Design

Environmental goal: On track for LEED Gold certification.

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