Champion for Coppin

College: Retiring President Calvin W. Burnett's greatest legacy is his relentless fight to keep his school alive.

November 19, 2001|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

Two or three mornings a week - and twice on his birthday, March 16 - Calvin W. Burnett walks four miles from Coppin State College on West North Avenue to the Inner Harbor - and four miles back again.

Burnett, 69, takes the walk early, alone and briskly. He's been doing it for 25 years and never been threatened by robber or panhandler. He strides through the blighted neighborhoods of West Baltimore, past the Lyric and Walters, around Harborplace, then back to Coppin along historic but now bedraggled Pennsylvania Avenue. By 8:30, he's at work as college president.

The walk "gives me a chance to be at peace with myself, to see the sun rise over a city I love and to think about how to get the alligators out of the pond," Burnett says.

By next summer, Burnett's walks won't be as frequent. Recently, he announced he'll retire after 32 years at the Coppin helm.

That's nearly a record, exceeded in Maryland only by Burnett's cross-town friend, H. Mebane Turner, a year longer in office at the University of Baltimore. Nationally, the average tenure of college presidents is less than seven years.

"Given the location of his campus and the challenges he faces every day, Cal has one of the toughest jobs in the state, and he's done it well and for a long time," says Turner, who also will retire next summer.

Burnett's departure comes at a propitious time for Coppin. Just weeks before the announcement, a committee formed as part of an agreement between the state and the U.S. Education Department's Office of Civil Rights reported that the college had been badly short-changed over the past decade. The committee called for $300 million in construction and renovation through 2011.

In an emotional talk to his faculty and staff, Burnett called the publication of that report the highlight of his Coppin career. "It confirmed independently what we've been saying for years," Burnett says. "It's a real breakthrough."

John S. Toll, president of Washington College in Chestertown and chairman of the committee, says Coppin's needs are so urgent that revitalizing the campus "should be considered the modern version of the land-grant movement," referring to the 19th-century federal program that built the nation's public universities, including the University of Maryland, College Park.

"The land-grant program was to reach people who haven't been reached," says Toll, "and that's what we have in our urban centers."

A modest man who does not seek publicity, Burnett believes his greatest legacy is the successful fending off of several proposals to close the 101-year-old former teachers college or to merge it with other Baltimore-area schools. He spent much of 1991, "my worst year," fighting to keep Coppin alive. Today, the school has a record enrollment of 3,500 students, many of them in liberal arts programs, and talk of closure or merger has abated - at least for now.

"I guess you could say that Cal's greatest contribution was keeping Coppin Coppin," says Sidney Krome, an English professor and former academic vice president.

Burnett gets high praise for maintaining a close relationship with a community that has one of the highest poverty rates in the country.

"You could say that's one of Cal's legacies," says Del. Howard P. Rawlings, who often speaks for Coppin in the General Assembly and heads the House Appropriations Committee.

Coppin operates a community health center, and the college is the only one in the nation to run a neighborhood public school, Rosemont Elementary.

Academically, Rawlings says, "Coppin has a way to go, and the new president will have to focus on standards issues. He or she needs to address the fact that in six years, only 25 percent of Coppin students graduate. It used to be in the single digits. And people have to have a sense that when they do graduate, they've had a strong academic experience. The new president has to be an academic leader."

Burnett survived several critical state audits and a scandal four years ago in which he acknowledged paying $38,500 to Larry Young, a state senator who later was expelled from the legislature for ethical violations. But if many criticize his leadership style, his defenders say he was never given a fair chance.

"He's like a guy who's asked if he wants to buy a car," says Frank Kober, associate dean of education and a 26-year Coppin veteran, "and after he says yes, he'd love a new car, he gets handed $5."

State officials say one reason Coppin was slighted in capital funding during the 1990s is that Burnett wasn't aggressive enough in searching for funds. It's a criticism Burnett deeply resents, but he leaves it to others to call it thinly veiled racism.

Burnett says simply that the criticism is unfair, and, passing Rash Field on a recent morning walk, he tells a story.

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