Retiring leader focuses on graduates

Coppin's Burnett speaks on students' potential

Morgan holds ceremony

May 20, 2002|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

Coppin State College President Calvin W. Burnett lived up to his reputation for understatement yesterday in presiding over the last graduation of his 32-year tenure.

Burnett delivered as his commencement address an academic treatise on the dangers faced by an uneducated society. He tossed in several pleas that the joyous audience celebrate in a dignified fashion. Rhetorical flourishes burst only from the mouths of others, praising the retiring president.

"He's always been there, striving to make Coppin what it is today. He's a giant in the community," said Nathan A. Chapman Jr., chairman of the University System of Maryland's Board of Regents.

About 650 Coppin students graduated at ceremonies at Baltimore Arena yesterday afternoon. Earlier in the day, about 860 students received diplomas at Morgan State University's commencement ceremonies on the Morgan campus.

At Coppin's graduation, Burnett scarcely mentioned his August retirement. Instead, he guided attention to the graduates seated before him. "It is of the utmost importance that every one of you graduates know that you can be whatever you believe you can be," he told them.

Then he stepped to the corner of the Baltimore Arena stage, where he shook hands with or hugged every person who received a diploma.

Burnett is the second-longest-serving college president in the Baltimore area. H. Mebane Turner at the University of Baltimore has served one year longer.

The highlight of Burnett's career came last year, he said, when the U.S. Department of Education's Bureau of Civil Rights decided that the college had been denied adequate funds during the past decade and called for Coppin to receive $300 million for construction and renovation projects between now and 2011. Burnett called the decision a culmination of his long battle to secure more funding for the college.

At Morgan State's ceremonies, speakers and graduates alike emphasized the university's commitment to including students from all backgrounds, not just those born to privilege.

`A right meant for all'

"Morgan hasn't forgotten that education in America is a right meant for all, not a privilege reserved for the fortunate few," said keynote speaker Stacy H. Davis, president and chief executive officer of the Fannie Mae Foundation. "When everything from low expectations to low income keeps the doors of college blocked for African-Americans, Morgan State University continues to force them open. When conventional wisdom says that if you aren't swimming upstream, you're drifting downstream, Morgan continues to defy the odds."

In addition to awarding approximately 750 undergraduate degrees, Morgan awarded 93 master's degrees and 14 doctorates.

Davis said that although minorities are making up a larger proportion of the nation's population, they continue to lag in terms of wealth and employment. She compared the effort to climb out of that hole to the quests for voting and civil rights in the post-Reconstruction era and challenged graduates to push for equity.

In this spirit, the university emphasized the stories of graduates such as Candis M. Silva, a Woodlawn High graduate whose low test scores almost kept her out of Morgan. Silva graduated magna cum laude yesterday with a bachelor's degree in marketing. She plans to have a career in pharmaceutical sales.

The tone was less serious at times, with graduates waving their trademark orange flags throughout the two-hour ceremony and giving the biggest applause of the day to graduating senior Cynthia Hardy, an Alabama native whose soprano voice soared during her solo rendition of "Great Is Thy Faithfulness."

`A Different World'

Class President Jessica Addison joked that the fictional black college in the sitcom A Different World hadn't prepared her for 20-page papers with footnotes or battles for financial aid.

"But we have persevered, and if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere," she said.

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