At Coppin State, a streak by another Cal


At 38, he was the second youngest Maryland college president when he took the top job at Coppin State College 25 years ago this month. Richard Nixon was president, and the West Baltimore college had three telephone lines.

Now, at 63, Calvin W. Burnett is among higher education's elder statesmen. He has quadrupled the 6.1-year average tenure of college and university presidents, and he has done it in a tough urban setting swept constantly by political winds, all the while living on campus and raising four children.

The campus, meanwhile, looks nothing like it did in 1970, thanks to a considerable infusion of state money.

"The strongest tribute we can pay to Calvin Burnett is the same kind of tribute we're paying to our other Cal," said Del. Howard "Pete" Rawlings, the West Baltimore Democrat who is chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

Mr. Rawlings said that for a quarter of a century, Dr. Burnett has been on the job. "His accomplishment is comparable to Cal Ripken's," he said.

Dr. Burnett came to Baltimore a greenhorn administrator, a 6-foot-5-inch former basketball star at St. Louis University. Over a quarter-century he survived a student boycott and faculty no-confidence vote in the 1970s, state audits criticizing the college's financial management and, recently, an attempt to merge Coppin with the larger and more prestigious Morgan State University, Baltimore's other historically black college.

A quiet man who avoids publicity -- rare in an age of public relations hype -- Dr. Burnett fought the merger proposal in 1991 "with all of my strength," he said in an interview. But he did most of it in private. The fight was particularly bitter for the Coppin president because some powerful African-American leaders lined up in favor of the merger.

Coppin, however, had been brought into the new University of Maryland System in 1989, while Morgan stayed independent. The system's Board of Regents supported Dr. Burnett, holding a symbolic meeting on his campus and passing a resolution opposing the merger.

"Cal handled himself adroitly during that crisis," said H. Mebane Turner, the University of Baltimore president and dean of Maryland public university chiefs with 26 years in office. "There was never any sense in merging those two schools, and Cal made his case quietly but forcefully. He doesn't have a lot to say, but when he talks, people listen."

Sidney Krome, who stepped down from the academic vice presidency at Coppin this summer to return to the English classroom, agreed. "He led the fight brilliantly. You have to admire him," he said.

On campus, some complain that Dr. Burnett is aloof and that his administration shows spells of incompetence. One English teacher, who asked to remain anonymous because she fears retaliation, said she had to wait three weeks after a remedial course began for the textbooks to arrive. "That's about par for the course at Coppin," she said.

'Nontraditional' student

But Carolyn Carey, a "nontraditional" student at 50, said Dr. Burnett "seems to have a vision. He seems to be aware of what direction the institution needs to take, and I think he's made it more competitive in what has become a very competitive age."

Dr. Burnett sets a modest style at a school that never has wanted to be a Harvard. Unlike its brethren in the state university system, Coppin never wanted to be titled a "university."

"We could never be a university," Dr. Burnett said. "But we can be a very, very good college, serving this urban community."

It's Coppin's role as a community center in the midst of a troubled city that wins praise.

"People don't understand what a treasure Coppin is to Baltimore, and what a good job Calvin has done building it up," said Hoke L. Smith, president of Towson State University. "I shudder to think what West Baltimore would be like without Coppin."

Freeman A. Hrabowski, who worked for 10 years under Dr. Burnett before leaving for the University of Maryland Baltimore County (where he is now president), agreed. "It's hard for people who haven't dealt with, or refuse to deal with, the issues of the inner city to understand how hard it is to keep giving hope, be positive and run an efficient operation all at the same time," he said.

Coppin is known for a limited number of what Mr. Rawlings calls "signature programs" -- criminal justice, nursing, social work, education. All are related to human services, which is Coppin's "mission" in the grand scheme of Maryland higher education.

Meanwhile, the school has opened a community health center run by its nursing students. A center for families is in the works. Dr. Burnett has dreams of housing for the elderly adjacent to the campus.

Blighted neighborhoods

"We're on the edge of some of the city's most blighted neighborhoods," he said. "We've always been a good neighbor, and we'd like to extend our campus, in effect, as far around us as we can. We've never had a fence separating us from Baltimore, and we have hardly any vandalism. That's amazing when you think about it."

Coppin opened a 300-bed dormitory two years ago, a move that Dr. Burnett said has raised academic standards by extending the school's student base beyond Baltimore.

One of them is Ms. Carey, a senior honors student who last week was filling out an application for a prestigious national fellowship. "I might not win it," she said, "but I would never have dreamed I'd be remotely eligible without a Coppin education."

But Coppin has a long road to travel to the academic big leagues. Its freshmen averaged 791 on the Scholastic Assessment Test last year, well below the average of 989 for students entering public colleges and the 1093 scored by students entering UMBC and College Park. Its loan default rate is high, and its student retention rate is low.

Delegate Rawlings is critical of Coppin's record at keeping students in school, and he has been what he calls "a loving critic" of Dr. Burnett's over many years.

"Back when he came," said Mr. Rawlings, "a lot of us were attempting to open up the University of Maryland and other campuses to be more responsive to black interests. Calvin Burnett had just come on the job. People were looking for an aggressive, rah-rah personality who would demand changes at what had been a neglected campus with lots of needs.

Campus moves forward

"What we got was a shy person with a dominating physical presence, always deferential but always on target in terms of moving the campus forward. Some of us were openly critical and impatient with him, but at the time we were probably wrong." Mr. Rawlings said.

In the six or seven years he hopes to work before retirement, Dr. Burnett said, he plans to delegate more operating authority and turn his attention to fund raising. "We can no longer rely on the state for what we need, so I'm going to have to go out and get it," he said.

What does Dr. Burnett believe he has accomplished in a quarter of a century?

"I've seen 25 graduations, and when you add up those numbers and realize the struggle that particularly Coppin students have had to go through to earn those degrees, and you figure maybe their families won't have quite so big a struggle because of what we did for them. . . . That's my greatest sense of accomplishment."

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