To be a university

April 27, 2004

JUST A YEAR after taking the helm at the tiny historically black college in West Baltimore, Stanley F. Battle persuaded the legislature to change the school's name. Coppin State College is now Coppin State University.

The campus is celebrating the feel-good symbolism. Thankfully, no one at Coppin is so naive as to think that a name change alone will alter perceptions. Based on the experience of other Maryland colleges that have adopted the tonier-sounding but essentially cosmetic designation of "university," the name change has limited value.

The sad truth is that President Battle is fighting a persistent perception that Coppin's programs don't measure up to those of richer schools. Over the years, it's been convenient to blame the state for not spending more to expand Coppin's programs and facilities. But even as his staff is enduring four- to 11-day furloughs, he says, they now must look ahead to an anticipated state investment of $160 million over five years, and steer toward improvement.

If Coppin is to become "the little college that could," it must:

Build on what it does best, even if that means letting go of lesser programs. Coppin should stop at nothing to dominate in its strongest fields: teacher education, nursing, biological and life sciences, management/technology. With only about 3,200 undergraduates (and about 780 graduate students), Coppin is the smallest among the state university system's four-year programs. Growth, whether from its traditional student base or other populations (Mr. Battle is looking to the Latino community), will depend on delivering competitive and superior programs.

Reach out to alumni, whose contributions to society are the best public relations and recruitment tools Coppin will ever have. For a very long time, Coppin has underused the assets of its alumni, who've used the college as a steppingstone to middle-class comfort: candidates for medical school, research scientists, nurses and biotech workers and teachers. Not a famous bunch, but the backbone of Baltimore's middle class.

It's not just a matter of asking them for more fund-raising help, although money for scholarships is an issue. When President Battle arrived, Coppin's endowment was only about $5 million - and that's not going to take the school very far. It's that Coppin has to do a better job of telling the compelling stories of its graduates, many of whom chose Coppin because they had little money, and many of whom were the first in their families to attain a degree.

Expand the field-training programs that provide a public service while giving students on-the-job experience. These show Coppin at its best, and have the potential to improve city life while preparing students for careers in urban settings. For example, in recent years, a Coppin teacher-training partnership with a Baltimore elementary school has helped that school earn state honors; plans are being made to run a city high school. When these partnerships are well done, everyone benefits.

What's in a name? It doesn't matter. Coppin's future will depend not on what it is called, but on what it will deliver.

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