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Urban Rhythms

School of Hard Knocks

By Wiley Hall III | Posted 11/14/2001

In late September, an independent panel "found" that Coppin State College, a historically black college in West Baltimore, has been so shamefully neglected by the state that it would need a massive infusion of funds to bring it up to 21st century standards.

The panel "found" that the state invested $699 in capital funds per student between 1990 and 2000 at Coppin, compared to an average of $16,144 per student at other Maryland public campuses. The majority of Coppin's 10 buildings need major renovations, the panel "found." Several of those buildings cannot be salvaged at all and need to be demolished.

Coppin lags behind its peers in technology, program development, and staffing. And while enrollment has grown steadily over the past decade, the panel noted that the need for Coppin's services is so great--it is located in a community that is 99 percent black, poor, and has one of the city's highest unemployment rates--that enrollment would likely increase even faster if the state showed even a modest commitment to the school.

I put quotation marks around the word "found" because, of course, none of this was news. In fact, the study panel was appointed at the request of the federal Office of Civil Rights, which has been trying for the better part of a decade to compel Maryland to dismantle its separate and unequal system of higher education.

You need to know this background in order to understand my reaction to the reaction of state officials to this "news." Their reaction was to blame Coppin's president.

"An unstated consensus . . . is that Coppin needs new leadership," opined an Oct. 6 editorial in The Sun. "Everyone likes the courtly president, Calvin W. Burnett, but many wonder if he's up to the task of managing a huge infusion of development. He's been in charge for 31 years. Not much has happened to reverse Coppin's decline during that time."

My reaction to this is unprintable, but I'm going to print it anyway: You arrogant, no good sons of bitches. You ought to roast in hell. How dare you blame Calvin W. Burnett. How dare you.

The pretense, of course, is that the state's leaders did not know what was happening at Coppin and that Burnett was remiss for not bringing it to their attention. This is a bald-faced and cowardly lie; a bodacious lie; to use Adolf Hitler's term, a big lie.

Burnett, who is far less coarse than I, answered this lie best: "We've been asking for years," he told The Sun in an interview last month. "And even if we hadn't asked, when a parent sees a child in need, does the child have to ask?"

Exactly right. Well put.

Burnett has announced that he will retire next August after 32 years at the helm. His tenure has been marked by a gallant struggle to fulfill Coppin's mission despite malign neglect from the state.

"Dr. Burnett needs to be saluted," state Sen. Clarence Mitchell IV (D-Baltimore City) tells me. "He made bricks without straw. Some people did everything they could to strangle Coppin financially, and the fact they couldn't do it speaks to the genius of Dr. Burnett."

Nevertheless, Burnett is stepping aside so that the state can concentrate on Coppin's future rather than on his leadership. Upon his departure, the state will no doubt engage in a brief flurry of brisk activity--as if to say, "Now we'll get things done."

In reality, Maryland is a Southern state with a Southern heritage and a Southern way of thinking. Most of the people who have occupied the State House and who sit in the General Assembly seem like decent enough people. But the grotesque disparity documented in this recent report did not occur by accident, and it wasn't hidden.

The study panel came up with a modest price tag of $300 million and very generously recommended that the state be allowed to spread that investment over 10 years. But any impulse I might have to give the state the benefit of the doubt about whether it can be persuaded to make such a commitment was destroyed by the lie, the bodacious, bald-faced, big lie. Confronted with evidence of their crime, state officials preferred to blame the man, the gentleman, who has struggled so hard to make their crime less awful for all these long years. Instead of hanging their collective heads in shame, they called for the resignation of the very man whom they ought to be celebrating as a superhero.

No, I'm afraid arrogant liars such as these cannot be trusted to do right by Coppin, its students, or the community it serves. You can bank on it.

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