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Laslo Boyd: What’s next for Coppin State?

Last month, a special review committee appointed by the University System of Maryland and chaired by UMBC president Freeman A. Hrabowski III issued a report that offered a frank and highly disturbing assessment of Coppin State University. The committee, which included four members of the state legislature, two USM regents and six representatives from the Coppin community, did something incredibly rare in higher education. It examined data and facts and used those rather than any preconceived notions or political stances to reach conclusions.

Of all the numbers in the report, the starkest is that the graduation rate for first-time, full-time freshmen after six years is only 15 percent. It’s a figure that has been around for a while, but has always been excused by claims of inadequate state support for Coppin and by the disadvantaged background of students coming to the university.

The committee’s examination of the facts shows that Coppin is in fact the best funded of the USM’s comprehensive universities and is significantly better funded than any of its peer institutions. The problem, it turns out, is not the level of resources, but how those monies have been used. In the past decade, while enrollment was declining by 3 percent, there was a 49 percent increase in the number of faculty, a 92 percent increase in administrators and the addition of 20 new academic degree programs.

As the committee found, increases in resources have not led to improvement in student outcomes. The report goes into great detail about inefficiencies and waste, including a poor record on collecting tuition and fee revenues, a deficit in the intercollegiate athletic program and inadequate private fundraising. Still, the real tragedy is that Coppin has missed the opportunity to improve the education that it offers to students who look to the university as their way to better lives.

A second finding about graduation rates helps put the problems into sharper focus. The graduation rate for students transferring to Coppin is 40 percent. Too many of the freshmen coming to Coppin are not prepared for college. The report suggests that greater emphasis be placed on recruiting transfers and on evaluating incoming students more carefully to make sure that they are prepared.

A careful reading of the report shows that the next phase for Coppin is going to be extremely challenging. While the committee pointed out that there are dedicated and capable faculty, it also highlighted a number of recurring complaints from students. Concerns included faculty not showing up for classes or office hours, not following the syllabus provided for a course and not using the available instructional technology. Moreover, given the enrollment decline and the rapid increase in the number of faculty and degree programs, there’s clearly a misalignment of resources.

The challenge on the administrative side is at least as severe. The report criticized the quality and responsiveness of Coppin’s student support services, a particularly critical issue for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. References in the report to the need to “right size the administrative organization” and to “implement critical personnel decisions” suggest that major changes should be in the offing.

The committee did not question the need to have a university playing the role that is Coppin’s mission, but clearly believes that drastic changes have to be made if the university is to be successful in its role.

The report recommends implementation of an improvement process to include staff from the University System of Maryland, Coppin’s interim president and others at the campus. Work on an implemental plan is underway, but a significant question is whether it can go far enough.

Will Coppin be able to move forward in light of the bold analysis provided by the study committee or will any serious effort at transformation be sidetracked, as so many higher education questions in Maryland are, by the politics of race?

The answer may lie with the four legislators on the study committee — Del. Adrienne A. Jones, Sen. Delores G. Kelley, Sen. Catherine E. Pugh and Del. Barbara A. Robinson. They should all be commended for signing on to a report that provides an honest look at the challenges facing Coppin. If these four elected officials continue to show the same resolve that they have up to now, real change is possible.

The role of the University System of Maryland will also be vital. One could argue that the system didn’t pay enough attention as the situation at Coppin got worse over the past decade. The Board of Regents and the chancellor have the ultimate responsibility for selecting and evaluating campus presidents.

Moreover, the addition of 20 new degree programs, which the study committee saw as part of Coppin’s mismanagement, were all signed off on by the university system.

On the other hand, USM has now intervened, played a major role in staffing and supporting the study committee, and will need to provide expertise and assistance through what will be a difficult transition period for Coppin. The temptation to blink or equivocate will be great, but Coppin’s students and the City of Baltimore deserve better than that.

Laslo Boyd writes a monthly column for The Daily Record. He has held senior positions in higher education in Maryland and Massachusetts as well in Maryland governor’s office. He can be contacted at lvboyd@gmail.com.