Checking in one last time

Tour: Coppin State College's longtime president, Calvin Burnett, says goodbye to his campus and his colleagues.

March 01, 2003|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

After more than 32 years as president of Coppin State College, Calvin W. Burnett spent his last day on the job as he had many Fridays before it: walking.

With his trademark long stride, Burnett went from building to building, seeking out staff and faculty in their offices and cubicles to say farewell, repeating for a final time the rounds he often made on Friday afternoons to check in with his employees. He crisscrossed the snow-covered campus and climbed back stairways, wanting to make sure he wasn't missing anyone.

It was easy going for a 70-year-old who, until recently, regularly made an 8-mile early morning stroll from Coppin's West Baltimore campus to the Inner Harbor and back. And it was the least he could do to thank the people who, he said, are what makes leaving difficult.

"There are the new buildings and programs, and that's all great, but it's the people I'll miss the most," Burnett said, standing on the steps of the college library in his trench coat and tan work boots. "I've been fortunate to have such wonderful people on this campus."

The small historically black college has had plenty of time to prepare for Burnett's departure, which he announced in November 2001. Initially, he was to retire in September, but the search for a replacement was extended several months. On Monday, the new president finally arrives: Stanley F. Battle, a vice chancellor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

For Burnett, the delay has provided time to get used to the idea of leaving the institution that he has led for more than three decades. But for others, saying goodbye to a president known for his paternal loyalty to the college was hard yesterday.

"I have never seen a president who was so dedicated to his institution," said Maqbool Patel, associate vice president for capital planning. "He's here early every morning. Whenever I needed a meeting with him, he was there. He'll be missed."

Burnett's 32 years in office make him the longest-serving of the state's active college presidents. He admits the years haven't always been easy.

For the past two decades, the school in the heart of one of the city's poorest areas has suffered from severe neglect when it comes to state funding. In the 1990s, it received $669 a student in capital funds, compared with an average of $16,144 a student at the state's other campuses.

Burnett's critics have attributed this partly to Coppin's leadership, saying Burnett didn't lobby hard enough for state support. He disputes this and was heartened by a 2001 report by an independent panel that found the college had been inexcusably shortchanged.

Relations between Burnett and the leaders of the University System of Maryland have also been strained at times. Announcing his retirement to the campus last year, Burnett said that system officials had tried to get him to retire years before but that he had resisted.

Yesterday, Burnett focused on the positive. He has high hopes for his successor, and he has great confidence in Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, who have included six Coppin projects in their capital budget this year.

That would help put the college on track for the $300 million in capital funding over 10 years that the independent commission said would be needed to help Coppin catch up. The panel's review was part of the state's agreement with the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights to desegregate its public colleges.

While he is sorry the college had to wait so long for an infusion of support, Burnett says he doesn't regret that he won't be on hand to witness the overhaul. He takes enough pride in having laid the groundwork for several buildings.

"I'm just pleased they're on the drawing board," he said. "History is replete with people who get things started but can't finish them, and I accept that. The point is that the institution is growing."

What he is most proud of, Burnett adds, are the several hundred students who graduated from Coppin each year during his tenure despite the huge obstacles most of them faced. "That's a tremendous feeling of achievement," he said.

System Chancellor William E. Kirwan was similarly upbeat yesterday, saying he has "always had just enormous admiration and respect" for Burnett.

"He always struck me as someone who could rise above the petty fray and speak from principle. I found him on so many occasions to be absolutely inspirational," Kirwan said. "He served as a wonderful role model of a president who can lead through difficult times with great dignity."

On his last day, Burnett met with Patel to review the latest designs for the new buildings, then with planning director Pamela G. Arrington to suggest some tweaks to the college's master plan. Farewell gifts were stacked on his table, next to the office Bible, which was open to Psalm 41, one of his favorites: "Blessed be he that considers the poor; the Lord will deliver him in times of trouble."

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