Coppin leader's style in dispute


Coppin State College President Calvin W. Burnett's expansive office windows look westward on a campus plaza fringed with trees showing the first colors of autumn. It's a scene out of central casting.

But up close at ground level, it's easy to see signs that the West Baltimore college missed out on the flurry of campus building and renovation across Maryland in the 1990s.

There are the cracks in the pool of the Coppin Center and in the dangerously crumbling brick on the facade of the Miles Connor Administration Building, among other examples of neglect and decay.

A report last week by a state-appointed study team said Maryland built one building at Coppin, a dormitory, between 1990 and this year, for $2 million - a per-student capital expenditure of $699.

In the same period, according to the report, the state spent $5,000 per student on construction at Towson University, the second-lowest amount, and $49,000 per student on construction at the University of Maryland, Baltimore - the most generously served campus during the decade.

The panel recommended $300 million in building and renovation at Coppin over the next decade.

Officials say racial discrimination is the reason Coppin has been left so far behind. Maryland was relatively generous to Morgan State University, a historically black institution in Northeast Baltimore, spending $137 million during the 1990s, mostly on building renovation.

The state doesn't seem to have discriminated against urban or rural campuses. University of Maryland, Baltimore sits just west of downtown. The majority-black University of Maryland, Eastern Shore, in rural Princess Anne, enjoyed $51 million in capital spending.

Leadership praised

John S. Toll, president of Washington College in Chestertown and chairman of the Coppin study team, said the panel wasn't asked to examine the cause of Coppin's neglect, and Toll praised Burnett's leadership.

Others said the longtime president, in his 31st year on the job, failed to advance his campus' building priorities in the increasingly competitive world of Maryland higher education.

It's not that Coppin didn't recognize its needs. Burnett said the campus' 1996 master plan called for almost all of the construction projects recommended by the Toll panel. "We've been asking for years," Burnett said. "And even if we hadn't asked, when a parent sees a child in need, does the child have to ask?"

But Donald N. Langenberg, chancellor of the University System of Maryland, of which Coppin is a part, said there's a difference between a campus' master plan and the detailed proposals, in order of priority, that colleges must submit yearly to be included in the system's capital budget request to the governor. "And Coppin hasn't done that," said Langenberg.

When the state's higher education system was reorganized at the turn of the 1990s, Morgan State and St. Mary's College of Maryland in Southern Maryland opted out of the new system. Both have been treated well in capital budgets, although Earl S. Richardson, Morgan president, said, "We're just now catching up with where we were in the '70s."

'Everyone lobbies'

Richardson said Coppin and the other campuses in the university system aren't disadvantaged in having to move budget requests through a system bureaucracy. "Everyone lobbies for his own institution whether or not he's in the system," said Richardson. "And it's not just me. A whole lot of us at Morgan are involved in the relationship with the governor."

Officials at Coppin maintain the school simply doesn't have the influence to elbow its way to the front of the budget line with the likes of the university system's flagship at College Park, which, for example, received priority state spending for its $101 million Comcast sports center.

Most of the 18,000 Coppin alumni are teachers, nurses, correctional workers and social workers - many living and working in Baltimore - and the West North Avenue school is in a neighborhood where 27 percent of residents earn less than $15,000 a year.

"Our mission is still important, though we might not have the power," said Pamela G. Arrington, Coppin's director of planning and accreditation. "We're as unique in what we do as the research institutions and the land-grant universities."

The Toll report said it's "doubtful that any other institution would take up Coppin's mission, a mission that is especially expensive to fulfill."

'Not complaining'

Burnett said. "I'm not complaining about the power I don't have. That's a fact of life. What I am complaining about is fairness over many years."

That sentiment is shared by Charles G. Tildon Jr., former president of Baltimore City Community College and a member of the Toll panel, which was appointed this year as part of an agreement between Maryland and the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights.

"This just didn't start with Cal Burnett," said Tildon, "and it didn't start when they created the system. It's been going on for 100 years. There are cracks in buildings whose construction was governed by the state that are so wide the buildings have to be torn down.

"Do you blame that on the president? ... If we [panel members] had seen conditions related to his leadership, we'd have said that."

Toll said the next step will be for the university system to work with Coppin on a strategic plan that might include supplemental appropriations in the 2003 budget and substantial new aid in 2004."

Michael Morrill, spokesman for Gov. Parris N. Glendening, wasn't hopeful about major new spending.

'A tough year'

"Next year will be a tough year, and I don't think you'll see huge expenditures in any one sector," he said, "especially for any one institution."

Langenberg was optimistic. "We're moving on Coppin," he said, "and we were moving on Coppin even before the [Toll] report."

He said he'll report during a meeting of the system's Board of Regents today that Coppin is projected for $144 million in capital projects over the next five years. "That's nearly half of what the [study team] is recommending over 10 years," he said. "We've finally got the beginnings of addressing this."

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