At Coppin State, a streak by another Cal

September 11, 1995|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,Sun Staff Writer

At 38, he was the second youngest Maryland college president when he took the top job at Coppin State College 25 years ago this month. Richard Nixon was president, and the West Baltimore college had three telephone lines.

Now, at 63, Calvin W. Burnett is among higher education's elder statesmen. He has quadrupled the 6.1-year average tenure of college and university presidents, and he has done it in a tough urban setting swept constantly by political winds, all the while living on campus and raising four children.

The campus, meanwhile, looks nothing like it did in 1970, thanks to a considerable infusion of state money.

"The strongest tribute we can pay to Calvin Burnett is the same kind of tribute we're paying to our other Cal," said Del. Howard "Pete" Rawlings, the West Baltimore Democrat who is chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

Mr. Rawlings said that for a quarter of a century, Dr. Burnett has been on the job. "His accomplishment is comparable to Cal Ripken's," he said.

Dr. Burnett came to Baltimore a greenhorn administrator, a 6-foot-5-inch former basketball star at St. Louis University. Over a quarter-century he survived a student boycott and faculty no-confidence vote in the 1970s, state audits criticizing the college's financial management and, recently, an attempt to merge Coppin with the larger and more prestigious Morgan State University, Baltimore's other historically black college.

A quiet man who avoids publicity -- rare in an age of public relations hype -- Dr. Burnett fought the merger proposal in 1991 "with all of my strength," he said in an interview. But he did most of it in private. The fight was particularly bitter for the Coppin president because some powerful African-American leaders lined up in favor of the merger.

Coppin, however, had been brought into the new University of Maryland System in 1989, while Morgan stayed independent. The system's Board of Regents supported Dr. Burnett, holding a symbolic meeting on his campus and passing a resolution opposing the merger.

"Cal handled himself adroitly during that crisis," said H. Mebane Turner, the University of Baltimore president and dean of Maryland public university chiefs with 26 years in office. "There was never any sense in merging those two schools, and Cal made his case quietly but forcefully. He doesn't have a lot to say, but when he talks, people listen."

Sidney Krome, who stepped down from the academic vice presidency at Coppin this summer to return to the English classroom, agreed. "He led the fight brilliantly. You have to admire him," he said.

On campus, some complain that Dr. Burnett is aloof and that his administration shows spells of incompetence. One English teacher, who asked to remain anonymous because she fears retaliation, said she had to wait three weeks after a remedial course began for the textbooks to arrive. "That's about par for the course at Coppin," she said.

'Nontraditional' student

But Carolyn Carey, a "nontraditional" student at 50, said Dr. Burnett "seems to have a vision. He seems to be aware of what direction the institution needs to take, and I think he's made it more competitive in what has become a very competitive age."

Dr. Burnett sets a modest style at a school that never has wanted to be a Harvard. Unlike its brethren in the state university system, Coppin never wanted to be titled a "university."

"We could never be a university," Dr. Burnett said. "But we can be a very, very good college, serving this urban community."

It's Coppin's role as a community center in the midst of a troubled city that wins praise.

"People don't understand what a treasure Coppin is to Baltimore, and what a good job Calvin has done building it up," said Hoke L. Smith, president of Towson State University. "I shudder to think what West Baltimore would be like without Coppin."

Freeman A. Hrabowski, who worked for 10 years under Dr. Burnett before leaving for the University of Maryland Baltimore County (where he is now president), agreed. "It's hard for people who haven't dealt with, or refuse to deal with, the issues of the inner city to understand how hard it is to keep giving hope, be positive and run an efficient operation all at the same time," he said.

Coppin is known for a limited number of what Mr. Rawlings calls "signature programs" -- criminal justice, nursing, social work, education. All are related to human services, which is Coppin's "mission" in the grand scheme of Maryland higher education.

Meanwhile, the school has opened a community health center run by its nursing students. A center for families is in the works. Dr. Burnett has dreams of housing for the elderly adjacent to the campus.

Blighted neighborhoods

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