Coppin professors lash out

But criticism is purged from accreditation report

June 12, 2008|By Gadi Dechter | Gadi Dechter,SUN REPORTER

As part of its formal case for reaccreditation, Coppin State University officials watered down a faculty and staff-written report critical of the college's treatment of its core academic staff, records show.

Among the criticisms omitted or played down in a final "self-study" report to the Middle States Commission on Higher Education was that Coppin's shared-governance committee has not convened in several years, that professors are underrepresented in university decision-making bodies and that there is a general "absence of active, systematic, meaningful faculty involvement in budget planning and development."

A copy of the draft report, obtained by The Sun, reveals long-standing tensions between academicians and administrators at the public university, which suffers from the lowest graduation rate among Maryland public schools, and one of the lowest among its peers nationally.

"What's happened here is a classic example of a lack of collegial governance," said James E. Perley, chairman of the American Association University Professors' accreditation committee. "In the desire for re-accreditation, one voice has been stifled."

The accrediting agency, Middle States, is expected to deliver its verdict this week on whether Coppin will pass its 10-year recertification - and therefore remain qualified to receive federal financial aid. By highlighting their grievances, faculty hoped to put pressure on Coppin's administration. While universities rarely lose their accreditation, the federally sanctioned oversight agencies can require follow-up actions on findings of deficiencies and subject a campus to formal reprobation.

Despite being frustrated with the revisions, some Coppin professors say that new President Reginald S. Avery has already made substantial improvements to the school's academic orientation and that they remain hopeful that the long-troubled college is on the right path.

"This university is in the beginning of a very positive period," said Fred Medinger, the Coppin social work professor who co-chaired the subcommittee that produced the original report. He gives Avery high marks, in part for merely being receptive to criticism and open to dialogue. "The very process of speaking openly with high-level administrators was not done five years ago," Medinger said.

Avery's response to his restive teachers is a first major test for the former vice chancellor at the University of South Carolina Upstate, who inherited in January a Baltimore campus in the middle of a multimillion-dollar building renaissance, but which lags behind its peers in Maryland and around the country on traditional academic measures.

Avery is Coppin's fifth president in 108 years, and a tradition of entrenched, centralized leadership has often left the faculty disenfranchised, veteran teachers say. But they are speaking out now. At Medinger's request, the faculty senate agreed in March to a resolution expressing concern over the university's handling of the shared governance report, according to the body's prepared minutes.

Perley, a former president of the American Association of University Professors, said the Coppin faculty's public censure of its administration is noteworthy. "I'm familiar with seven or eight other schools where faculty have felt their voices weren't really involved in the accreditation process," he said. Such criticism is "probably not so open and public at other institutions as it is here," he said.

The dispute began in December, before Avery arrived. That month, Medinger's subcommittee presented a draft of its report to Scott J. Dantley, an interim associate provost tapped to oversee the university's accreditation process. Dantley "unilaterally" revised the report, according to the faculty senate, and sent his version to a team of peer educators appointed by the accrediting agency, which toured the school and prepared their own recommendation to Middle States in mid-April.

Coppin officials said the wholesale revisions to the report were actually made at the urging of the chairman of the visiting review team, Edison O. Jackson, president of Medgar Evers College in New York City. After reviewing the draft, Jackson "noted that the draft was far too negative and failed to tell the 'Coppin Story,'" according to a statement prepared by Coppin spokeswoman Ursula Battle. Jackson suggested a revision that focused on Coppin's strengths, Battle said.

Jackson did not reply to a request for comment, and Middle States officials declined to answer questions.

In the draft report, Medinger's committee concluded that Coppin is compliant "only to a limited extent" with the "leadership and governance" standards set forth by the accreditors and urged the university to "develop a plan to address and correct structural and operational deficiencies in governance at Coppin" with specific deadlines.

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