Coppin professors lash out

The Baltimore Sun

As part of its formal case for reaccreditation, Coppin State University officials watered down a faculty and staff-written report critical of the college's treatment of its core academic staff, records show.

Among the criticisms omitted or played down in a final "self-study" report to the Middle States Commission on Higher Education was that Coppin's shared-governance committee has not convened in several years, that professors are underrepresented in university decision-making bodies and that there is a general "absence of active, systematic, meaningful faculty involvement in budget planning and development."

A copy of the draft report, obtained by The Sun, reveals long-standing tensions between academicians and administrators at the public university, which suffers from the lowest graduation rate among Maryland public schools, and one of the lowest among its peers nationally.

"What's happened here is a classic example of a lack of collegial governance," said James E. Perley, chairman of the American Association University Professors' accreditation committee. "In the desire for re-accreditation, one voice has been stifled."

The accrediting agency, Middle States, is expected to deliver its verdict this week on whether Coppin will pass its 10-year recertification - and therefore remain qualified to receive federal financial aid. By highlighting their grievances, faculty hoped to put pressure on Coppin's administration. While universities rarely lose their accreditation, the federally sanctioned oversight agencies can require follow-up actions on findings of deficiencies and subject a campus to formal reprobation.

Despite being frustrated with the revisions, some Coppin professors say that new President Reginald S. Avery has already made substantial improvements to the school's academic orientation and that they remain hopeful that the long-troubled college is on the right path.

"This university is in the beginning of a very positive period," said Fred Medinger, the Coppin social work professor who co-chaired the subcommittee that produced the original report. He gives Avery high marks, in part for merely being receptive to criticism and open to dialogue. "The very process of speaking openly with high-level administrators was not done five years ago," Medinger said.

Avery's response to his restive teachers is a first major test for the former vice chancellor at the University of South Carolina Upstate, who inherited in January a Baltimore campus in the middle of a multimillion-dollar building renaissance, but which lags behind its peers in Maryland and around the country on traditional academic measures.

Avery is Coppin's fifth president in 108 years, and a tradition of entrenched, centralized leadership has often left the faculty disenfranchised, veteran teachers say. But they are speaking out now. At Medinger's request, the faculty senate agreed in March to a resolution expressing concern over the university's handling of the shared governance report, according to the body's prepared minutes.

Perley, a former president of the American Association of University Professors, said the Coppin faculty's public censure of its administration is noteworthy. "I'm familiar with seven or eight other schools where faculty have felt their voices weren't really involved in the accreditation process," he said. Such criticism is "probably not so open and public at other institutions as it is here," he said.

The dispute began in December, before Avery arrived. That month, Medinger's subcommittee presented a draft of its report to Scott J. Dantley, an interim associate provost tapped to oversee the university's accreditation process. Dantley "unilaterally" revised the report, according to the faculty senate, and sent his version to a team of peer educators appointed by the accrediting agency, which toured the school and prepared their own recommendation to Middle States in mid-April.

Coppin officials said the wholesale revisions to the report were actually made at the urging of the chairman of the visiting review team, Edison O. Jackson, president of Medgar Evers College in New York City. After reviewing the draft, Jackson "noted that the draft was far too negative and failed to tell the 'Coppin Story,'" according to a statement prepared by Coppin spokeswoman Ursula Battle. Jackson suggested a revision that focused on Coppin's strengths, Battle said.

Jackson did not reply to a request for comment, and Middle States officials declined to answer questions.

In the draft report, Medinger's committee concluded that Coppin is compliant "only to a limited extent" with the "leadership and governance" standards set forth by the accreditors and urged the university to "develop a plan to address and correct structural and operational deficiencies in governance at Coppin" with specific deadlines.

The final version of the report paints a rather more positive picture of faculty-administration relations at Coppin, though it acknowledges that "opportunities for faculty involvement in budget planning and development ... have traditionally been limited."

Medinger said he met with Jackson when the Middle States team toured the campus in April and laid out faculty concerns with the self-study report revisions. According to an excerpt from Jackson's "team report" to Middle States provided by Coppin officials, the Medgar Evers president concluded "that there is a dynamic, functioning shared governance process" at Coppin.

Several Coppin faculty emphasized that their criticism of shared governance at the university is a legacy of previous administrations and that they believe Avery is committed to making improvements.

Elias Taylor, a Coppin sociology professor, said that the controversy over the accreditation process "in no way ... reflects [on] the current president."

Taylor said Avery's open-door policy with faculty is a signal departure from his predecessor, Stanley F. Battle, now the president of North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University. "Battle never had a dialogue with the faculty," Taylor said. "Zippo."

More important, Taylor said, is Avery's pledge to make 10 new tenure-track faculty hires at a campus where about 200 part-time lecturers outnumber roughly 100 traditional professors - and his decision to include the faculty senate president at biweekly meetings of the president's executive council, where major policy decisions are discussed.

"I want to reach out to faculty and staff," Avery said. "I know how faculty sometimes can feel isolated or feel that they're not being listened to."

Avery also said he wants to stimulate the growth of student enrollment from around 4,000 to more than 6,000, and increase the graduation rate to about 40 percent within five years. Currently, only about 20 percent of Coppin's students graduate within six years of enrolling.

Perley said that despite the faculty's current optimism about the school's new leadership, any attempt to play down their unhappy relationship with Coppin administrators in the recent past is troubling and has the potential to undermine faith in the voluntary accreditation process generally.

Most colleges are accredited by a federally recognized agency, such as Middle States, because the certification is necessary for students to be eligible for federal financial aid and federally backed student loans. The Bush administration has been critical of the accreditation process, in part out of concern that cozy relationships between accreditors and colleges fail to ensure tough standards for teaching quality.

"I'm a strong believer in meaningful accreditation as an evaluative tool," Perley said. "It's a self-examination which everyone should do periodically. When I hear these kinds of things, I lose a notch of faith in the process."

Perley said he hoped Middle States accreditors will make note of the shared-governance issues in their final report. "I hope there would be mention of it, because that's the trigger that allows an institution to change. If it's glossed over, whitewashed, then there's no need to change."

gadi.dechter@baltsun.com

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