Coppin State University has a serious problem with very low rates of student retention and graduation. Last December, the University System of Maryland Board of Regents created a Special Review Committee to look into this problem further and make recommendations. This is of special interest to me, as I served as a member of the faculty at Coppin for 12 years, from 1999 until 2011, including service as Faculty Senate president in 2005-2007.
Historically, Coppin's core mission has been to provide much-needed access to quality higher education for the citizens of Baltimore City, especially African-American men and women who often must contend with social and economic barriers because of race. However, in recent years this vital mission has fallen into disrepair at the institutional level at Coppin. Since 2004 — in reality if not in rhetoric — Coppin's primary focus has shifted away from its students in favor of institutional self-promotion and higher status as a new "university." The students themselves have become stepchildren in the new order at Coppin.
The student retention and graduation figures reflect this troubling reality. Since 2004, when Coppin State College first declared itself to be the new Coppin State University, the six-year graduation rate for full-time students has fallen from 28 percent to 15 percent, the latter figure among the lowest in the nation. Today, barely one out of every seven full-time students successfully graduates within six years of entering Coppin as a first-time student.
Coppin's six-year graduation rate of 15 percent compares to equivalent rates of 34 percent at Morgan State and 41 percent at Bowie State (also historically black colleges and universities). This decline has occurred in spite of the fact that since 2004, as compensation for decades of prior fiscal discrimination against HBCUs in Maryland, Coppin annually has received one of the highest state appropriations per full-time equivalent student of any institution within the 12-member University System of Maryland. Coppin has also been virtually exempt from any real accountability to the citizens of Maryland for its declining institutional performance.
Coppin State College expanded vertically in 2004 to pursue its ambition to become a university with higher status and a much greater emphasis placed on faculty research and prestigious publications. However, Coppin made this change from a position of weakness, with a contemporary six-year graduation rate in 2004 that was by far the lowest of all of the HBCUs in Maryland at that time. The graduation rate has now fallen even further, to little more than half of what it was in 2004.
Much like a homeowner with a beautifully renovated kitchen and living room in a house that is falling apart because of a sagging foundation, Coppin today has an impressive campus infrastructure and a much higher level of visible faculty publications and sponsored research — but fails to educate most of its students through to successful degree completion.
Why should becoming a university have been so harmful to Coppin's identity and core values? There is an unfortunate reality within universities that is little known outside of higher education. Teaching and service to students have much lower status within a university than do publications, conference presentations and grants acquisition. For university faculty, devoting oneself to student-focused instruction and service, instead of scholarly activity, is not the way to build an impressive resume and advance to higher faculty ranks.
Worse, failing to produce enough publications can result in outright termination from the university. In fact, this is what happened to many teaching faculty at Coppin who came up for tenure in the years following Coppin's becoming a university in 2004. Junior faculty who day after day had devoted themselves to student-focused teaching and service in the challenging educational environment that is Coppin — consistent with Coppin's core mission — were abruptly terminated after six years of dedicated service, without due process, if they had insufficient evidence of scholarship at the time of review for tenure.
In summary, an internal agenda of institutional self-promotion and image-enhancement has now overshadowed Coppin's student-focused mission within Maryland higher education. The discounting of teaching and student learning that has occurred at Coppin must be corrected. The citizens of Baltimore, including the African-American women and men who look to Coppin for their college education, and who willingly assume a large burden of debt with the expectation of receiving a quality higher education at Coppin, deserve no less than this.
Fred Medinger, a clinical social worker, is former Faculty Senate president at Coppin State University. He holds a PhD in clinical social work from the University of Maryland School of Social Work and an EdD in higher education from the University of Maryland at College Park. His email is email@example.com.