The recently released University System of Maryland report on Coppin State University has generated mixed reaction among Coppin supporters and other observers of Historically Black Colleges across the country. The most generous of individuals reacting to the report give the University System of Maryland and the state of Maryland the benefit of the doubt as to their purpose in issuing the document. They simply say “It’s about time,” obviously referring to many years of benign neglect of the North Avenue campus by the state and the University System of Maryland.
Critics who have watched more closely the politics surrounding the Coppin campus are less forgiving and more skeptical. They question not only the necessity for the report, but also its objectivity, content and timing. They are particularly sensitive to attempts to blame the Coppin administration, faculty and students for the failures of policymakers and others responsible for the academic program approval, the awarding of operating funds, and the funding of facilities. The USM report on Coppin is, for these critics, a self-serving “report of convenience” designed more to change the narrative on the failures of the University System of Maryland and the state than to demonstrate a genuine interest in Coppin.
There appears to be a good reason for skepticism. Of Coppin’s many needs, it has never suffered from a shortage of reports and studies. Several have been issued over the last three decades with the best examples being a 1981 study on the status of Maryland’s HBCUs; the 2001 Toll Report on the revitalization of Coppin State College; and the 2008 HBI study issued in conjunction with a special state higher education funding commission report. Each of these documents speaks objectively to the critical needs of Coppin and, by implication, to the lack of state investment in the campus. None blamed the administration, the faculty or even the students for any underperformance. Apparently, the authors of these reports realized that even the most skillful president would find it difficult, if not impossible, to effectively and efficiently manage an institution without the required resources. Note that the earlier reports were done under the watchful eye of the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights and were developed by independent groups.
In the last five or six years, Coppin has received three or four new buildings, a few new programs and minimal increases in operating funds; but it will require several more years of investments before the campus overcomes decades of underfunding. Only then, will the North Avenue campus be able to compete successfully with other higher education institutions in attracting a better mix of both first-time and transfer students; and in recruiting and retaining increasing numbers of quality faculty and staff, including a new president.
Reactions to the timing of the USM report on Coppin are also interesting for at least two reasons. Various national publications are focusing increasingly on the institutions like Coppin whose retention and graduation rates are among the lowest of the country. That is a direct reflection on the University System of Maryland since Coppin is one of the 11 campuses for which the system is responsible. It so happens that the Maryland system and the state of Maryland are greatly concerned about the possible outcome of the HBCU lawsuit now pending before the federal court. Attorneys for the HBCUs have presented loads of data to support the claim that the current status of the Black colleges is due to the action and/or inaction of the state.
The University System Board of Regents and the governor are also under tremendous pressure from the Coppin community. Several months ago faculty group acting out of desperation distributed a scathing letter addressed to Gov. Martin O’Malley criticizing USM Chancellor William Kirwan and the board of regents for neglect of the campus. To the extent that they felt past presidents or the current one may be partly at fault, the group emphasized that the board and the chancellor bear responsibility because they selected those individuals, sometimes over the objections of the faculty.
Finally, the recommendations in the report are not new or novel, except for the ones indicting the campus for its misfortunes. The ideas are no different from those advocated by Coppin, Morgan, UMES and Bowie for many decades, only to have their presidents either co-opted or compromised. For the sake of the faculty, students, staff, alumni and other supporters of Coppin University, we want to believe that this time it will be different; but we have our doubts.
A. Dwight Pettit is a Baltimore attorney whose practice has included successful litigation in criminal, personal injury and constitutional law cases. He is also a former member of the University System of Maryland Board of Regents.