BALTIMORE – When then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer toured Morgan State University in 1989, few saw hope for the historically black campus.
Enrollment was near an all-time low. Many classroom buildings were in disrepair. Schaefer said the dorms looked worse than the state’s prisons. And some state officials were thinking about merging Morgan with nearby Coppin State.
Schaefer, however, saw the school’s potential and began pushing for more state funding. Today, six years and $100 million later, the 128-year-old university boasts vastly increased enrollments, applications and SAT scores, renovations of old buildings and new construction.
“There’s just been phenomenal growth on every single front,” says Morgan President Earl Richardson.
The freshman application pool this year was 6,500, compared to 1,500 in the mid-1980s. As a result, competition to enter the school has intensified and average SAT scores have increased to 857, up from about 704 in 1987. About 5,800 students now attend Morgan, more than a 50 percent increase in less than a decade.
Morgan experienced its heyday in the 1950s and 1960s, with an enrollment of nearly 8,000 at a time when higher education remained largely segregated.
The decline began in the 1970s, when many blacks turned away from traditionally black schools in favor of larger institutions, and many of the school’s shoddily constructed buildings began to deteriorate. By 1986, enrollment had dropped to 3,752.
Edith Booker, Morgan’s state relations director, shows off Holmes Hall, the campus’ most prominent landmark and most recent renovation, which has received a “460-degree” improvement, she says. The white-pillared stone structure now boasts state-of-the- art classrooms and high-tech equipment.
On the other side of campus, two new high-rise dorms hold 800 much-needed beds and a dining hall. A new engineering facility, a science complex and renovations of most of the other buildings on campus round out the improvements.
Richardson says the Schaefer-led renovations, as well as a renewed interest in historically black universities nationwide, were the main factors behind the university’s revitalization.
Maryland’s three other traditionally black schools – the University of Maryland-Eastern Shore, Coppin State University and Bowie State University – also have seen enrollment growth, but not the dramatic increases in applications and SAT scores that Morgan State has enjoyed.
Del. Frank Turner, D-Howard, who has taught business law at Morgan for 21 years, says the new facilities helped attract students and increase the quality of the institution.
“A lot of old equipment was totally outdated,” he says. When Turner returns in the fall, he will teach in a “smart building” filled with updated equipment.
And once the renovations were in place, it became easier to persuade the Legislature to give more funding, Richardson says. “Everything we did here was a success and everyone likes to be associated with a success.”
Campus officials say they have had to spend little time recruiting because alumni are so proud of the school they often encourage students to visit.
According to Turner, Morgan alumni “have such a sense of history, such a sense of tradition, such a sense of fellowship.”
Those alumni include several members of the General Assembly, and many have strong ties to their alma mater.
Sen. Nathaniel McFadden, D-Baltimore, attended Morgan in the 1960s, at a time when “blacks did not find themselves in large numbers at large universities.”
“In the long run, I have greatly benefitted from the contacts I made there,” McFadden says.
But despite the 13 alumni serving as legislators, Turner says he does not see Morgan getting special treatment in its appeals for funds.
“They are in a fight for funds just like any other institution in the state,” Turner says. “They’re probably given even a little more scrutiny because so many graduates are members of the General Assembly.”
Richardson says he isn’t sure how he improved the campus’ relationship with the Legislature. “I think it was a matter of packaging the university and selling it to the legislators,” he says.
Richardson hopes to eventually increase enrollment to 8,000.
“We must educate minorities in masses if we are going to remedy the massive under-representation of minorities in the work place and communities,” he says.
In addition, he hopes to secure funding for more renovations through the Legislature. Planned projects – which will cost about another $100 million, Booker estimates – include expansions of the library and stadium, a new fine arts center and an engineering complex addition to be named after Schaefer.
Richardson remains confident in the future of the university. “This will be one of the most productive, competitive and attractive institutions in the state.”