Buildings exist. They visibly represent commitments and growth, expansion and opportunity. A new building can say a lot that spreadsheet or a brochure cannot.
Which is why Bowie State University President Mickey Burnim, retiring at the end of the month, will not say he focused on beautifying the campus during his 11 years at the helm of the state’s oldest historically black college.
“My focus has been on trying to provide what the university needs to provide its mission,” Burnim said. “For a comprehensive university in the midst of the information age, at a time when information is critically important for our state and our nation, how could I position Bowie State University to contribute what we needed to an economy that was innovative?”
But while Burnim said that, he stood in front of a visually striking building with a conspicuous black-windowed tower called The Beacon, part of the new Center for Natural Sciences, Mathematics and Nursing that literally signaled changes to the campus during his tenure.
The university, tucked between Bowie to the south and west, the Patuxent Wildlife Research Refuge to the north and the Patuxent River to the east, has struggled to interact with the greater Prince George’s County community.
Before he took the job as Bowie State president, Burnim asked community leaders and alumni what they thought the next president to do. They told him the next president need to become a “Prince Georgian,” and quickly.
“I didn’t know what that meant, but it seemed to be a statement that this person needed to be part of the community and concerned about the county and the community overall and willing to contribute to its progress and development,” Burnim said.
He made an effort to raise the school’s profile in the community by attending as many civic events as possible. But even then, the school had other issues.
When Burnim came on, the school did not have much of a fundraising environment, and the school’s student recruitment efforts often fell flat. The school had been labeled a “safety school” by high school counselors and Burnim felt students embraced that attitude as well.
In a metaphor even Hollywood would reject as too on-the-nose, the campus’ buildings were stuck in an early ‘80s political thriller: drab, gray, concrete blocks.
“Eleven years ago, many of the students, student leaders particularly, that I spoke to spoke about Bowie State University in almost apologetic terms and tones,” Burnim said.
He’d hear: “I’m here, but this was not my first choice.” “I wanted to go to X, but my parents didn’t want me to go out of state and wanted me to stay closer.” “The in-state tuition was more attractive.” “I didn’t get into this university or whatnot.”
“People were apologizing,” Burnim said. “They weren’t proud of that fact.”
The school’s image needed a facelift. That included new walking paths and landscaping. Since Burnim joined the school, it has opened four new buildings on campus, open, glass-covered buildings that look like they belong on a modern college campus.
Despite his protestations that he has focused on strengthening the school’s core programs, the beautification of the campus has been important. A section of a pamphlet the school produced for his retirement is titled, “Buildings Matter.”
Besides the campus’s cosmetic surgery, Burnim has shown results in enrollment. Last year, the school welcomed a record freshmen class.
Enrollment has been an emphasis for Bowie State. In Prince George’s County, it is just miles from the University of Maryland’s flagship College Park campus. As an historically black college it has to compete with fellow HBCU’s Howard University across the state line in the District of Columbia and Morgan State to the north in Baltimore. Burnim said students from Prince George’s County, who account for about half of Bowie State’s enrollment, also go to Frostburg, Towson and Salisbury for college.
Improving fundraising became a priority for Burnim. He came to Bowie from Elizabeth City State, an HBCU in rural northeastern North Carolina. He expected to find a better fundraising environment at Bowie State, a school in a metropolitan area and in the wealthiest African-American county in the nation.
That was 2006, the year before the Great Recession.
“But before it hit full force, we were having challenges,” Burnim said. The school lacked the proper “infrastructure” to fundraise, so he created an office for institutional advancement.
Even after that, Burnim ran into a problem more intrinsic to Bowie State’s core strengths. One of its best programs has been its teaching programs, churning out educators.
“Many of our graduates had been teachers and hadn’t been high-powered corporate executives or hadn’t been highly successful business titans and so forth,” Burnim said. “It’s a matter of helping people who were not accustomed to being cultivated and asked to give to the institution to get them to understand how important that was for this institution that receives some state appropriations and cultivating that giving mindset. We’re still in that process and it’s going to continue after I’m gone.”
The twin problems of fundraising and enrollment will continue to be important at Bowie State under the next president, Dr. Aminta Breaux, and for HBCUs in general, Burnim said.
“She’ll have to continue to build upon that and make sure that our people don’t relax and know that it’s competitive and that we will have to continue be very aggressive in telling its story and processing applications once they come in,” Burnim said. “That’s the key.”