8:00 AM EDT, May 19, 2013
Coppin State University is a mess, and the problems go well beyond its abysmal six-year graduation rate of 15 percent. A report to the University System of Maryland Board of Regents by a committee assigned to study the school in the wake of former President Reginald Avery's departure found massive mismanagement, inefficiency and indifference. The state puts more resources per student into Coppin than any other institution in the university system, and it gets the least return. That's bad for the taxpayers, but it's worse for the students whose dreams of advancement go unfulfilled. Big changes are clearly needed.
The report, which the regents adopted on Wednesday, is not wholly bleak. It recognizes Coppin's traditional commitment to serving the local community and the role it plays in providing opportunities for thousands of students, predominantly minorities and often from families without a strong tradition of higher education. It recognizes the importance of that mission but concludes that major changes are needed if Coppin is to achieve it.
The evidence that something is seriously wrong with the way Coppin has been run in recent years is overwhelming. During a decade when enrollment dropped by 3 percent, Coppin added 20 new degree programs and boosted faculty positions by 49 percent and administrative positions by 92 percent. Coppin's professors have a significantly larger course load than other USM universities but produce by far the lowest average credit hours — essentially, faculty are teaching courses that few students want to take. One might imagine that this increase in faculty and administrators has produced a more nurturing, supportive environment, but the opposite is true; students expressed dissatisfaction with professors for not showing up to class or office hours, and they complained that the administration was indifferent.
This report was not the work of a group of Coppin-haters. The committee was chaired by UMBC President Freeman Hrabowski, who spent much of his early career at Coppin, and included faculty, staff, students and political leaders who represent the communities around the university. Of the 14 members, nine graduated from Coppin, worked there, or both. These are people who support Coppin and want it to succeed.
Nonetheless, their recommendations may be hard for many in the Coppin community to accept. They include "right-sizing" the administration — that is to say, eliminating positions — and dropping low-priority academic programs. And they call for a shift in what has essentially been an open-door admissions policy to one in which the school is much more selective in its admissions of first-time, full-time freshmen.
There's good reason for that. The 15 percent graduation rate refers to that kind of student — basically, those who go to Coppin straight out of high school. Sixty-six percent of those students require remedial courses when they get to Coppin, yet only 40 percent of them will have successfully completed them by the end of their first year. Many of these students are simply not equipped to succeed at a four-year university — at least not at that point in their lives.
And that's a key distinction. The university does much better with students who transfer to Coppin from community colleges or who come back to finish a degree started there or elsewhere. Transfer students make up less than half of the student body, but they account for two-thirds of the bachelor's degrees Coppin awards. Those who transfer from community colleges have a 40 percent graduation rate. The added maturity and drive of those students makes a real difference. The report calls on the school to increase its enrollment of transfer students but to develop stronger relationships with community colleges and divert to them first-time students who do not have a realistic chance for success at Coppin. That may be hard for some applicants and their parents to hear, but it makes sense.
Making all of this happen is going to require strong management, but the report comes at a time when the school does not have a permanent president. Instead, veteran education administrator Mortimer H. Neufville is serving on an interim basis, and the university system has not yet even begun a search for a permanent leader, nor does it intend to for the foreseeable future. That is likely the wisest course. Mr. Neufville, who served in a similar capacity at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, can make the difficult decisions without the fear a newly appointed president would have of alienating the faculty or staff. The new president can then come in, unencumbered by that baggage, and lead a much-strengthened institution. (This scenario is actually described, more or less, in a section of Niccolo Machiavelli's "The Prince".) Mr. Neufville and USM Chancellor William E. "Brit" Kirwan are due to present an implementation plan next month.
Baltimore is full of people who have succeeded in life because Coppin was willing to give them a chance that other schools would not. It still needs to play that role but to do so in a smarter way. The recommendations in this report, if they are implemented well, can make that possible.
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