Morgan campus riled by outage

Voice mail break tied to bigger enrollment, slow administration

January 14, 2007|By Gadi Dechter | Gadi Dechter,Sun reporter

Now in its fifth week, a voice mail meltdown at Morgan State University has riled a campus already frustrated by recent growing pains and an administration that critics say is slow to respond to problems or complaints.

"It's not been pleasant," said university spokesman Clinton Coleman. "Mostly because people don't understand why the phones keep ringing. If someone tries to call me at this point," he said, speaking from his office phone, "it would not ring busy. It would just ring. People think you're not in your office when you are."

The voice mail system malfunctioned shortly before Christmas, capping a semester full of administrative headaches for Morgan's managers, faculty and students.

First came a student housing shortage that left scores of students homeless for days before it was sorted out. Then, a newly built communication studies building opened without enough chairs for students.

In addition to scheduled phone outages -- to accommodate major upgrades to phone and data networks -- the campus suffered about 15 unscheduled daylong disruptions, the result of subcontractors on separate projects getting in each other's way, according to Joseph J. Popovich, Jr., vice president for planning and information technology.

And now, the voice mail failure.

President Earl S. Richardson is "fit to be tied," said Coleman. "Even his voice mail isn't working."

The antiquated message system died the week before Christmas, during a holiday break that limited its impact on students and faculty. But it couldn't have come at a worse time for the Morgan State University Foundation, Coleman said.

"This has really put a dent in the foundation's efforts to raise end-of-year funds," he said. "When people are calling and not getting an answer, that hurts them."

Donors often wait until the end of the year to make gifts, for tax-planning reasons.

Coleman said the foundation was able to mitigate the problem by accepting donations online.

Popovich said a new $200,000 voice mail system should be installed by the end of January, when students return for the spring semester, and that major technical hurdles have been cleared involving the long-overdue transfer of the phone system from copper to fiber-optic lines.

The voice mail equipment--which is no longer serviced by the manufacturer or the phone company -- had been on its last legs for a while. About 18 months ago, a hard-drive crash rendered it inoperable for a week, and the university started planning to replace the system, Popovich said.

In mid-December, the voice mail system again started failing sporadically, the result of a malfunctioning part.

"We searched all over when it was starting to crash for the part that was needed, and could not find it," Popovich said. "So we've just got to replace the whole thing."

Morgan officials say the confluence of administrative problems last semester is the result of natural growing pains; the university is experiencing rapid enrollment growth at a time of major construction on campus.

"I think things have subsided to a large extent," Coleman said. "Each of these experiences is a learning opportunity, and so we have tried to learn from them."

But some students believe last semester's troubles are symptomatic of a culture of bureaucratic disarray that is tolerated at Morgan.

Sophomore Kevin Gardner Jr. said his scholarship documentation was lost three times by administrative staff, who are not only disorganized, but discourteous.

"The overall attitude of `I don't care' is painted on most of the faces of the staff, and that is something I do not want to be subjected to," said Gardner of Northeast Baltimore, who said he hopes to transfer to University of Maryland, Baltimore County or Towson University next year.

Darlington Mochaa-Uchefuna, 23, a senior, is not assuaged by official statements that the phone problems have largely been fixed.

"To me that's not even one of the problems," he said. "Morgan State has a lot of problems. And I mean a lot. Especially in the administrative department. When school starts [again], go to financial aid. Come and see the lines. Come and see what goes on in here. See what kind of inefficiency. It's unbearable."

Richardson has heard similar complaints from students, Coleman said, and commissioned last summer a two-year self-assessment of "customer service" at the state's only historically black research university.

The first report of the self-study will be complete at the end of this school year.

"Hopefully, at the end of a year we can begin to make incremental changes," Coleman said. "We want to know where those areas of poor customer service are, and where ... improvement can be made."

gadi.dechter@baltsun.com

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