Improving Morgan State is on track to prominence Homecoming to celebrate decade's gains

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Political scientist Alvin Thornton, then chairman of Morgan State University's now-defunct faculty senate, left Baltimore in disgust 15 years ago because of the way the school was being run.

Now a professor at Howard University in Washington, he watched in pride as his daughter, Octavia, entered this fall as a freshman.

All in all, with gleaming new laboratories, a stronger faculty and a student body that has grown rapidly while posting its highest board scores ever, Morgan State appears back on track to reclaim its position of prominence in the city's life. A gala dinner tonight and other activities for homecoming weekend will mark the achievements of the last decade.

"It's not been the normal pace around here," said Morgan State President Earl S. Richardson, who took office in 1984. "It's been very aggressive, very ambitious, but very, very exciting."

Since his arrival on campus -- or, as Dr. Richardson likes to say, "since we arrived" -- the university has added programs in practical fields like transportation, hospitality, engineering and architecture. The proportion of faculty with the highest degree possible in their fields has jumped from 55 percent to 85 percent during the Richardson years.

And the university has attracted several major grants and contracts, including a program to train teachers and administrators in the Baltimore public schools.

Dr. Thornton said he believes the school has not achieved all it could, and has notably failed to attract enough white students to ensure broad-based support. Whites make up about 3 percent of all students. But, Dr. Thornton added brightly, "In light of all that, what it is today is amazing. I'm happy for what it is.

"If I wasn't too old, and tenured at Howard, I'd go back" to Morgan, he said.

Since the mid-1980s, Morgan State has been able to upgrade or replace dilapidated classrooms, dormitory halls, offices and laboratories. In the past 10 years, the university has undertaken more than $110 million in capital improvement projects.

The freshly scrubbed halls designated for engineering and science, in particular, have helped Morgan's more aggressive approach to recruiting students pay off. Enrollments have soared from a low of 3,900 in 1985 to the present 6,100, a notch below the university's all-time high.

And retention rates have crept steadily upward, although its five-year graduation rate stood only at about 30 percent in 1994, according to the Maryland Higher Education Commission.

Morgan State has the second-highest percentage among Maryland public colleges of freshmen who require remedial education, but officials suggest that drawing seemingly marginal students onto campus is part of their mission.

At the same time, Morgan administrators said, they have been able to recruit a broader range of students, with more emphasis on those in the upper reaches.

While campus officials profess not to place too much stock in testing, Morgan student scores have steadily risen for the Scholastic Assessment Test.

Between 1987 and 1994, scores improved from 728 to 740 (out of 1600) for all African-American high schoolers taking the test; during the same period, scores jumped from 701 to 864 for entering Morgan State freshmen.

"I can tell you firsthand and without reservation that the university has made a quantum leap in the last 10 years due in large part to the vision of Dr. Earl S. Richardson," said U.S. Rep. Kweisi Mfume, a Morgan regent and alumnus.

Yet this era has not been entirely without its blemishes.

Professors said that Dr. Richardson has little patience for dissent, and shut down the once-vibrant faculty senate. Faculty pay raises have been slow in coming, and the jump in enrollment has not been accompanied by an equivalent increase in faculty.

Students complain that the administration is unresponsive, and cite hassles in registration and dorm life. Like many urban universities, Morgan State has had to cope with crime, and students talk almost casually about holdups or reports of shootings near campus.

Last year, federal officials charged that Morgan had been at best inefficient in administering a $5.5 million grant creating a center for transportation studies. And the board of regents chairman stepped down recently amid allegations that he sexually harassed the university's top attorney.

But students talk proudly about the attention lavished on them by their professors. "When I got here, I was very anxious and nervous," said Tia Galloway, a 17-year-old freshman from Severn. Professors "talked to you like they wanted you here. They're there for us. I had this paranoid idea that you would be a number, that people wouldn't know my name. It was the opposite."

And Dr. Richardson gets high marks even from critics who note that he has managed to navigate the choppy waters of Annapolis successfully.

"The president has been quite impressive. I know that he is dedicated and conscientious and is very dedicated in recruiting," said Reginald Wilson, senior scholar at the American Council on Education in Washington. "He is improving the quality of the school and undoubtedly that is attracting some bright young blacks."

Morgan's faculty members take seriously its mission as an "urban research university." City planners are tackling the resurrection of blighted Baltimore neighborhoods, while civil engineers are helping to train teachers in how to incorporate environmental lessons into their courses.

Orisha Watkins, a 23-year-old fifth-year biology major from Prince George's County, said she selected Morgan because she received a scholarship and she wanted a majority-black institution.

"My high school was about 65 percent Caucasian," said Ms. Watkins, who is black. "I was always kind of quiet and timid. I wanted to be at a place where I was around African Americans."

But ACE's Dr. Wilson said that enrollments are not up at historically black schools because of people like Ms. Watkins. Since 1984, enrollments are up roughly one-third for all black students nationally, he said -- and about equally at predominantly white and historically black campuses.

Morgan confers bachelor's degrees on more black students than any other school in the state, a fact Dr. Richardson repeats like a mantra.

These new graduates tend to stick around Baltimore and Maryland, and an overwhelming majority every year secure employment in a field related to their study -- 80 percent last year, according to a campus survey.

Engineering school Dean Eugene DeLoatch found himself mobbed by students during a job fair. "A few years ago, there were just a handful of recruiters," Dr. DeLoatch said. "Now, there are 25 or 30 major corporations. And at least 10 to 15 percent of [the companies' representatives] are Morgan graduates."

The campus has plans to grow to 8,000 students.

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