Longtime Coppin president announces his retirement

Burnett to leave as state effort to help college begins

November 09, 2001|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

Calvin W. Burnett, who has served as president of Coppin State College since 1970, announced yesterday he will retire in August, just as a state-led effort to revitalize the 101-year-old school is getting under way.

Burnett, 70, revealed his decision during an afternoon address to faculty and staff at the West Baltimore campus.

"This has been a wonderful journey with the members of the Coppin State College family, of which God has blessed me to be a part," he said in a statement. "I am grateful for the opportunity to serve and therefore, next August it will be time for me to pass the torch."

In his address to the campus, Burnett alluded to past efforts by the state university system to pressure him to retire but said his decision to leave next year is his, according to professors in attendance.

University system administrators said last night that they had received informal word of Burnett's retirement plans, but had not prepared an official response to it.

Burnett's announcement sparked a standing ovation from Coppin staff, said witnesses. "I've been at Coppin longer than Burnett, and I've respected him from the start," said English department Chairwoman Mary Clawsey. "I find him a fine and honorable person. My first word to him today was, `Don't go.' He's done marvelous things for Coppin."

Burnett's decision won him praise from area educators, who noted that Coppin has grown from a small teachers college to a comprehensive college during his tenure and that Burnett had withstood several efforts to merge the college with other state campuses.

"The school has grown because of Dr. Burnett. That is clear," said Charles G. Tildon Jr., former president of Baltimore City Community College.

Burnett's announcement makes him the last member of Baltimore's triumvirate of veteran public college presidents to retire. Towson University's Hoke L. Smith, who had served since 1979, retired last year, and the University of Baltimore's H. Mebane Turner, who has served since 1969, will retire at the end of the school year.

"They've laid the foundations, and we can move on," said Del. Howard P. Rawlings, a West Baltimore Democrat who is chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

Burnett announced his retirement weeks after a state-appointed committee released a report on how to reinvigorate the 3,500-student, historically black college. The committee, formed as part of an agreement between the state and the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights, found that Coppin has received far less state funding for campus construction than other Maryland campuses have.

John S. Toll, president of Washington College in Chestertown and chairman of the committee, said a change in leadership at Coppin should not interfere with the school's proposed revitalization. The committee's report urged that Coppin receive $300 million for building and renovation during the next decade to compensate for a lack of support during the past 20 years.

"The recommendations are not tied to any particular person," Toll said. "Our recommendations are tied to the institution."

Critics over the years have attributed the state's slighting of Coppin to a lack of aggressive lobbying on the part of the college's leadership, a view Burnett dismissed during a recent Sun interview. "We've been asking for years," he said. "And even if we hadn't asked, when a parent sees a child in need, does the child have to ask?"

Burnett also came under fire in 1997 after state lawmakers raised questions about $38,500 in payments Coppin had made to Larry Young, a state senator at the time who later was expelled from the Senate for ethical violations. Burnett said at the time that the money was to pay Young for helping Coppin in fund raising and other efforts, an arrangement that the General Assembly's ethics committee deemed inappropriate.

Burnett told his faculty and staff yesterday that now that the Toll report has been made public, his retirement will remove him as a "lightning rod" for opposition to proposals to revive Coppin.

"He weathered repeated attempts to merge us out of existence, and now we have the Toll report showing we've been shortchanged," said Clawsey. "He's leaving on a high note, but I wish he wouldn't leave."

Sun staff writer Mike Bowler contributed to this article.

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