Morgan defends itself in Annapolis

House panel questions school's use of state funds

Rawlings leads inquiry

January 17, 2003|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

Morgan State University officials defended the college's use of state money and its academic reputation in a hot-tempered hearing yesterday that laid bare the tensions between the historically black school and a powerful House committee.

Several dozen Morgan administrators came to Annapolis by bus at the behest of Appropriations Chairman Howard P. Rawlings, who demanded they show what millions of dollars in funding for athletic facilities and a new performing arts center has accomplished.

Rawlings, a Baltimore Democrat, called the hearing in response to a November sports column in The Sun that sharply criticized the condition of Morgan's football stadium after $14 million in renovations by the university.

Rawlings and other lawmakers demanded to know why the stadium wasn't in better shape and why officials hadn't found more corporate sponsors for Morgan athletics.

But the two-hour hearing ranged far beyond sports.

Lawmakers asked why the university wasn't making more use of its new $45 million performing arts center; whether it was capable of handling major building projects; and why it hadn't finished higher than 35th in a recent ranking of the "best colleges for African-American students" in Black Enterprise Magazine, given the state's investment in the campus.

"That was surprising, and ought to be of some concern," Rawlings said of the ranking, which put Morgan behind the University of Maryland, College Park.

Countered Morgan President Earl S. Richardson: "If it's in the top 50 in the country, it's still in good company."

Riddled with interruptions and glares, the hearing underscored the frayed relationship between Morgan and a panel that has the power to make cuts to the governor's budget - at a time when Morgan is seeking money for several major projects.

The university has been funded well in the past 15 years, compared with other state colleges.

But relations with the committee have soured as Rawlings, a Morgan alumnus, has taken the university to task for alleged mismanagement and what he calls unjustified complaints by Richardson that the college is being shortchanged.

At several points in the hearing, lawmakers insinuated that Morgan has now gotten all the funding it needs to catch up after years of state neglect - a claim Richardson rejects.

The rift deepened last spring, when busloads of Morgan students descended on Annapolis after learning that the panel was withholding planning funds for a new library because Morgan hadn't done required site tests.

The university and lawmakers eventually reached a compromise to keep the $49 million library project on track.

Yesterday's hearing made clear, however, that the dispute left scars.

Del. Norman H. Conway, chairman of a subcommittee for capital projects, accused Richardson of provoking students by giving them false information about threats to the library project.

"I respected you, but I was disappointed ... when things came out that were not the case," said Conway, an Eastern Shore Democrat. "I hope Morgan will not allow that kind of situation to develop again."

Richardson denied that he had deliberately incited his students, who got a day off from school last spring so they could travel to Annapolis.

"We work so hard to be honest and forthright and tell our students the truth," Richardson said. "We have never misled our students."

Questioning Richardson about the stadium, Rawlings noted statements in the newspaper column that the stadium's rutted turf posed a hazard to players and that its overall condition scared away recruits. Richardson disagreed, saying Morgan did the best it could with the money it had.

"You may be surprised to hear that the university is generally pleased with the renovation," he said.

"The athletes beam with pride about the improvement of the facility. For us, you see, just basic improvement means so much," Richardson said.

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