Burnett chosen to lead agency

Governor set to name retired Coppin president to higher-education post

Announcement likely next week

As secretary, he'll oversee commission coordinating policy among colleges

December 06, 2003|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

In a move that has caught some Maryland college officials by surprise, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has chosen former Coppin State College President Calvin W. Burnett as his new secretary of higher education.

Ehrlich spokesman Shareese DeLeaver said yesterday that the governor would likely make his formal announcement on Burnett next week. As higher- education secretary, Burnett would lead the Maryland Higher Education Commission, an agency with a paid staff of 60 and unpaid board of 12 that is charged with coordinating policy among the state's private and public colleges.

The governor "feels that Dr. Burnett brings the kind of energy that the Maryland higher- education community deserves and needs at this point in time," DeLeaver said.

Burnett, 71, who could not be reached yesterday for comment, served 32 years as Coppin president before retiring from the historically black college last year. He was widely admired at the West Baltimore campus for his kindly demeanor and commitment to the school, which has suffered from decades of state neglect and has struggled with low graduation rates.

Still, Burnett's selection, first reported by The Gazette in Montgomery County, surprises some because he had said he was looking forward to leaving higher education, retiring to his Carroll County home and writing.

Also, Ehrlich had indicated in recent months that he was seeking to give new energy and direction to the commission, which has been accused of lacking authority and purpose. In April, he offered the job to Leonard L. Haynes III, an education adviser in the Bush administration, who said no.

Burnett is not an obvious match for Ehrlich's goal of overhauling the agency, some officials said yesterday. Even his admirers characterize his leadership style as more that of a relaxed caretaker than an aggressive reformer.

Critics have wondered whether Coppin would have received more funding - and perhaps improved academically - if Burnett had been more forceful in seeking state support. University System of Maryland officials, hoping to install new leadership at Coppin, encouraged him to retire years before he did.

MHEC board member Hoke L. Smith dismissed questions about Burnett's leadership style, saying Burnett was well-suited for the job because he cares so much about broadening access to higher education, a hot issue at a time of skyrocketing tuition.

"He's very persistent," said Smith, a former Towson University president. "People didn't always agree with him, but I've never heard anyone question his integrity and his concern for the people of the state."

State university system Chancellor William E. Kirwan also welcomed the appointment, saying Burnett would be able to draw on his decades of experience in the state.

Kirwan predicted that under Burnett, the commission would cooperate well with the system office. The two agencies, which overlap in some duties, are sometimes seen as struggling for primacy in setting policy.

"I'm sure it will be a new era of collaboration," Kirwan said. "One of the major roles of MHEC is to be a facilitator, and I cannot think of anyone better at facilitating than Cal."

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