Coppin State University is ailing but its dire state can be reversed, according to a recent report to the University System of Maryland Board of Regents.
The study, conducted by a committee created after former President Reginald Avery departed recently, concluded that the school is plagued by gross mismanagement, lack of financial accountability, inefficiency and lack of attention to student needs.
However, it also highlights the university’s strengths—the commitment of its faculty, its contributions to the local community, a strong technology infrastructure, and a number of successful academic programs.
“The report is an honest assessment of the strengths and challenges of Coppin State University. Unfortunately, what you would hear about are the problems,” said Freeman Hrabowski III, chairman of the Coppin review committee and president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
Symptoms of the institution’s mishandling in recent years were plentiful.
Despite an infusion of capital into the university in recent years, the school has the highest expenditure per student among state-run tertiary institutions, and has an operating budget deficit.
Copping also has the lowest six-year graduation rate for freshmen within the system, a measly 15 percent.
The report also found that while enrollment declined by 3 percent during the past decade, the university added 20 new academic degree programs, increased the faculty by 49 percent, and increased the number of administrators by 92 percent.
The addition of new programs meant that Coppin teachers had a higher course load, however, they generated the fewest student credit hours—meaning, the faculty were teaching courses that students were not interested in taking.
“Coppin expanded into some [academic] areas and neglected some areas,” said committee member state Sen. Catherine Pugh (D), who represents the district in which the university is located. “[For example], Coppin had a reputation for producing some of the state’s strongest teachers but they’ve moved away from that. And they were moving into some areas we’re not sure they should have.”
More “disappointing,” Pugh added, were the findings of a culture of indifference and poor support for students among administration and staff.
Students testified about teachers not showing up to class, not following the syllabus, and not being available during office hours. They also complained about poor service from the financial aid, bursar’s, registrar’s and admissions offices.
The problems outlined by the report are not unexpected for a school in the process of change, said University of Maryland law professor Larry Gibson, whose association with Coppin dates from when Coppin was a two-year college for teachers and who delivered the commencement address at the school’s graduation exercises this year.
“Coppin is a school in transition and during periods of transition it is not uncommon for there to be uncertainty,” he said. He added, “[But] I thought the committee made bold suggestions [for improvement] and I was heartened by their positive observations of Coppin.”
Those “bold” suggestions could be met by opposition by some within the Coppin community. But a majority of faculty welcomed the “self-study” and the chance to “clean up” the school after a rocky tenure under Avery, during which he received a vote of no-confidence, said Nicholas Eugene, president of the university’s faculty senate.
“Some people felt ‘managed’ but the majority of folks realized it was required,” Eugene said.
In fact, some of the report’s recommendations mirror those made by faculty during the no-confidence vote.
The suggestions include “right-sizing” the administration—eliminating some positions; cutting low-priority programs; increasing the use of technology and providing professional development for staff to help them learn how to interact with students; and recruiting students who are likelier to succeed by targeting older and transfer students, who have higher graduation rates; building relationships with feeder high schools whose students demonstrate higher academic success; and creating articulation agreements with local community colleges to divert students who require remedial learning or are otherwise not equipped to succeed at a four-year university.
The recommended changes may be a “difficult prospect” for faculty, staff, parents and applicants to face,” Sen. Pugh said, “but we have to do what’s best for Coppin and the students.”
The committee was comprised of members who have a vested interest in Coppin—some, like Hbrabowski, worked or are working at the university; others graduated or know persons who graduated from the institution, and most believed that the legacy of the historically Black university should be honored and preserved.
“Baltimore needs Coppin,” the chairman said. “Coppin’s future and Baltimore’s future are inextricably linked.”
Coppin was founded in 1900 at what was then called Colored High School (later named Douglass High School) as a one-year preparatory course for African-American elementary school teachers.
Named in honor of Fanny Jackson Coppin, a visionary pioneer in teacher education, the school has gone through several incarnations in the past 113 years—Coppin Normal School, Coppin Teachers College, Coppin State College and, finally, Coppin State University.
Hrabowski, who worked at Coppin from 1977 to 1987 as a professor, a dean and a vice president for academic affairs, said in the meantime, the broader community has to help diffuse the negative images of the school.
“We have to ensure we are letting people know the positive things about Coppin—that is the responsibility of the Coppin community and the Black community at large,” he said.