Morgan president says campus needs facelift

The unrelenting rain seeped through the ceiling and soaked carpets throughout the worn academic building. Trash bins were deployed at points where the deluge was worst so the Jenkins Behavioral and Social Sciences Building wouldn't fill up like a sinking ship.

Morgan State President David Wilson could only shake his head.

"When I look at certain buildings here, I have to say that we can't go into the future with the facilities we have," says Wilson after 15 months on the job. "I can't dress that up. The simple fact is that we have buildings here that need to be razed."

The troubles that ensued last month, when monsoon season hit Baltimore, highlighted a problem that already gnawed at Wilson. He believes Morgan has the ambition and intellectual muscle to become a nationally renowned center for urban research, but he does not believe the university's aged facilities project that image.

"I want people to come here and basically say, 'Wow!'" he says.

A $47 million plan to demolish and replace Jenkins is part of a $650 million backlog of construction projects on the Morgan campus in Northeast Baltimore. But the project does not appear in the state's capital investment forecast until 2016, and then, it's only earmarked for $1.4 million in planning money.

This is the reality Wilson and other university presidents face in economically strapped 2011. No matter how impressive their visions are, it's difficult to scrape together money even to replace clearly failing buildings.

"We need to do something with the facilities," says state Sen. Joan Carter Conway, a Baltimore Democrat whose district includes Morgan. "But just based on the economy right now, it's going to be very difficult. We can get money for planning and design, but it's difficult to get past that to actually building. We continue delaying and setting back these projects, because we just don't have the money."

Conway calls the condition of Jenkins a health and safety risk for students.

State Sen. James E. DeGrange, an Anne Arundel Democrat, recently visited the Morgan campus with fellow members of his budget committee. "We see that they have significant needs," he says. "I'd say they haven't got all they wanted, but you could say the same for a lot of these institutions. It's going to be a real challenge to get the necessary funding to make everybody happy."

Student government President DaQuan Lawrence, a senior from Harlem, N.Y., says he thinks Morgan needs new facilities. "A lot of the major academic buildings were built before the 1950s and 1960s, but with increased enrollment, we need them to be updated," he says. "One of the biggest signs of growth on a college campus is a crane."

Lawrence says that, as a sociology major, he takes many classes in Jenkins. "That's the exact building I was thinking of," he says when asked about the need for improvements. "There are all kinds of leaks and problems with the roof and ventilation. I wouldn't say I've been distracted by it, but it can definitely be problematic for the future. I know Dr. Wilson is trying to attract students with more diverse backgrounds, and our facilities don't accommodate it."

Wilson has celebrated his fair share of triumphs since becoming president in July 2010. Morgan won a $28.5 million grant from NASA, the largest in school history, and is also part of a $129 million grant awarded to multiple universities to study energy innovation. Enrollment is up 10 percent on the way to a projected goal of 12,000 (it was slightly more than 7,000 when Wilson arrived). The president donated $100,000 of his $375,000 first-year salary to kick off a scholarship program that would allow Morgan students to spend two semesters studying abroad and at elite universities around the U.S.

The university is about to launch a sweeping initiative called the Morgan Mile, an attempt to focus its research on solving the problems of neighborhoods located immediately around campus. The project echoes Wilson's endeavors at Auburn University, where he encouraged heavy investment in Alabama's poverty-stricken Black Belt. At the same time, Morgan has plans to expand its reach by offering degree programs on community college campuses around the Baltimore area. The effort will start with an electrical engineering program at Harford Community College.

Despite these efforts to bolster Morgan's identity, Wilson says the university is held back by the condition of its physical campus, though it has received more state funding for capital projects over the last decade than any of its peers except for the University of Maryland, College Park and the University of Maryland, Baltimore.

The state pledged to increase its investment in historically black colleges as part of a 2000 agreement with the federal Office of Civil Rights, but the funding levels remain at issue in a federal lawsuit filed by an advocacy group with ties to Morgan.

"I wouldn't say I was taken aback," Wilson says of his reaction to the deteriorated buildings when he arrived 15 months ago. "But having spent all of my career at well-financed institutions, I know what world-class facilities look like. When I came here, I saw some world-class facilities but a lot that need embellishment."

One of the first eyesores addressed under Wilson was the quadrangle outside his office, in the heart of the old section of campus. The president used to cringe at the burned-out lamps, buckled sidewalks and expanses of standing water. Who would want to plop on a bench and discuss the big ideas of the day in a setting like that?

"People would see it and say, 'Do you even care about your university?'" Wilson recalls, as earthmovers thrum in the background. "Fortunately, we were able to get the state to see the relevance of curb appeal."

The $3.5 million face-lift might not seem like much, but it's important to the president. "I want to see students on the benches and the lawns with their iPads and their laptops," he says. "That's what a college environment is all about."

He proceeds across the footbridge spanning Cold Spring Lane. Though Wilson is a formal man, given to dark suits and carefully modulated phrases, he seems tickled when students approach. "How are your grades?" he invariably asks.

"That's what I came to college for, to better myself, to better my race," replies Aaron Dow, a freshman from New Jersey who wears a tie neatly tucked under the collar of his sweater.

Dow says he came to Morgan because the university maintains its own tight community while also trying to address the issues of its home city. Asked if the condition of campus is holding the university back, he pauses for a moment.

"Actually, it's two-sided," he says. "On the one side, it needs to be better. It's a new age and we need to be better to keep up. But we also need to remember where we came from."

A few paces past the bridge, Wilson has his next target, Soper Library, in sight. "It's standing empty, another eyesore," he says. He wants it demolished and replaced with a brand-new admissions building that would serve as an entry point for prospective students.

"The first thing they see now are some dilapidated offices over at [the] Montebello [complex]," Wilson says. "It's important that we show them a campus of high quality, because students have choices."

Construction on that $70 million project would begin in 2016 under the governor's five-year plan. The project is next in line after a $72 million business school, slated to be built in 2014 and 2015 on a site Morgan recently purchased and cleared beside the Northwood Shopping Center.

Wilson says the university also needs an update to the home of its signature engineering program and a new health and human services building so its nursing program can resume growing.

The president recently hosted 20 key legislators for a presentation on the university's new master plan and he says they were "incredibly receptive."

DeGrange agrees that Wilson's message resonated. "It's a very positive situation," the state senator says. "He's trying to build relationships and follow through on what he says he wants to do."

But that won't translate easily into state dollars, DeGrange says. Legislators are looking for evidence that projects will pay off by bringing money into the state and are also looking to spread funding fairly among 14 institutions.

"With all the challenges we've got from all the different universities, everybody is not going to get exactly what they want," he says.

Wilson says the university has bolstered fundraising and will step up efforts to find private funding to help with construction projects. But state funding will always be the key, he adds.

"That's the door we have to knock on hardest and knock on first," he says. "This is the time. This is Morgan's moment."">

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