Coppin's champion


WHEN HE retired officially at 11:59 last night, Calvin W. Burnett ended a 32 1/2 -year tenure as president of Coppin State College. He outlasted every public college and university chief in the country.

When he arrived in the summer of 1970, he was Maryland's youngest college president at 38. He retires an elder statesman at 70, his hair now a distinguished white, his dark Afro abandoned with the student protests of the 1970s.

Last week, between snowstorms, Mr. Burnett took the last of his twice-weekly strolls to the Inner Harbor and back, an 8-mile walk from the West Baltimore campus.

"The walks always gave me time to reflect and get ready to clear the alligators," he once told me.

Alligators accumulate in 32 years. In the early post-Vietnam War years, Mr. Burnett survived a faculty no-confidence vote and a student strike. State audits criticized his financial management. There were several attempts to merge Coppin with another school or simply run it out of business. A string of officials in the old state college board and new state university system made no secret of their disdain for Mr. Burnett and the college he ran, often on a shoestring.

Then came 1998 and the Larry Young affair. Always a man who trusted others more than they trusted him, Mr. Burnett paid the state senator $38,500 to raise scholarship money and provide other services. Only a few of the services were rendered.

The relationship of the Coppin president and his friend was all too cozy for some. The Board of Regents rapped Mr. Burnett's knuckles, but it didn't fire him. A grand jury cleared him. The FBI visited his wife and bankers and found nothing but some books on Greek mythology he'd ordered. He never apologized.

"I was completely vindicated," he said last week with a trace of bitterness. "There wasn't any of that on TV. The publicity always comes during the accusatory phase."

Between the crises, Mr. Burnett took a backwater teachers college and turned it into a thriving liberal arts and sciences school that turns out many of Baltimore's teachers, nurses and corrections officers. Coppin became the only college in Maryland to operate a public school. Nearby Rosemont Elementary symbolizes the close relationship between Coppin and its struggling neighborhood.

"The majority of Coppin's students are needy," said John S. Toll, president of Washington College in Chestertown and former head of the University System of Maryland. "So are the majority of people who live around it. It's a bulwark in its community. No other college or university in Maryland does more outreach."

Coppin's aspirations have been as modest as its president, some would say too modest. Just as the school never aspired to be a "university," so its president never sought publicity for himself. Perhaps because of that shyness, he was a poor fund-raiser.

William E. Kirwan, chancellor of the university system, recalled that Coppin upset the Terrapins of College Park in basketball one year when Mr. Kirwan was president. "Cal came up to me after the game, and instead of lording it over me or teasing me, which anyone else would have done, he took pains to compliment me on how well my team had done," he said.

Mr. Kirwan said he considered Mr. Burnett "the conscience of the [university system] presidents' council. He operates from a set of principles and values more than most people I know, and as a result of that, when he speaks, most people take what he says at face value."

I asked Mr. Burnett to describe the high and low points of his long tenure.

"The high point was the day I heard Johnny Toll was going to head the task force looking into Coppin's needs," he said.

That was two years ago. The state-appointed panel reported Coppin had been badly neglected and needed $300 million for building and renovation to catch up.

Coppin didn't get much in Gov. Parris N. Glendening's last budget, but the budget of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. advances six projects on the campus, one of which Mr. Burnett hadn't requested. He showed me Coppin's 2011 master plan, which shows a tree-studded campus extending south to Baker Street and north to Gwynns Falls Parkway. "John Toll started all of this," said Mr. Burnett.

He said his low point came in 1991, when the presidents of Maryland's three other historically black colleges refused to take a position on the proposed merger of Coppin and Morgan State University. "It was probably the most disappointing day of my life at Coppin," said Mr. Burnett. "To think that the leadership of our community ... "

In 31 years of covering Mr. Burnett, I rarely heard him use "our" to refer to the African-American community. He never played a race card in public, never pointed a finger in anger, never played victim. Doing so, he said, "isn't what this country is based on."

Replaced today by Stanley F. Battle, a University of Wisconsin administrator, Mr. Burnett will retire to his home near Westminster, where he lives with his wife, Gretta, a retired school principal, and Gretta's 12-year-old grandson, whom they're helping to raise.

"I want to do some writing," he said, "maybe about courage, betrayal, deceit, canard. Some of it might have to be fiction."

Mike Bowler covers education as a reporter for The Sun.

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad