New leader aiming for stronger Coppin

As college president, Avery hopes to raise school's graduation rate

September 26, 2007|By Gadi Dechter | Gadi Dechter,Sun reporter

The incoming president of Coppin State University vowed yesterday to transform the struggling public college into a "first-choice" campus with high academic standards and improved graduation rates.

Reginald S. Avery, chief academic officer of the University of South Carolina Upstate, will become the fifth president of the 107-year-old West Baltimore institution in January, officials announced yesterday.

"In the next three years ... we should have increased our graduation rate to 50 percent" - or more than double the current rate, Avery said in a telephone interview from his Spartanburg office, where he has been executive vice chancellor since 2003. "That's ambitious in a short period of time, but that's my goal."

The South Carolina native succeeds Stanley F. Battle, who left Coppin this summer after four years to head up North Carolina A&T State University.

Avery inherits a 4,000-student inner-city campus invigorated in recent years by a large infusion of state funds, but one still struggling to raise student performance and overcome a generation of neglect by the state.

Coppin's student retention and graduation rates - considered the chief measures of an institution's educational success - have long been the lowest of Maryland's 13 public campuses, and rates have decreased in recent years.

Twenty-one percent of Coppin students who entered as freshmen in 2000 had received a degree by 2006, according to university system statistics. That compares with a six-year graduation rate of 64 percent in the state system.

Coppin also has the lowest retention and graduation rates among the state's four historically black colleges - which as a group lag behind Maryland's majority-white institutions.

Leaders at historically black schools have said such comparisons are unfair because their campuses tend to have more first-generation college students and students coming from low-performing urban high schools.

But Avery said he would "like to see us go beyond" the mission of educating primarily students who would not be admitted elsewhere. "I'd like us to be attentive to students who may not be able to go somewhere else, but also strengthen our academic profile to where other students" choose to attend Coppin.

The college's academic struggles come at a time of major state investment in Coppin's infrastructure, turning the North Avenue campus into a construction site.

In the past 10 years, the state has spent more than $210 million on capital improvements there, and has pledged an additional $203 million in the next five years - or about 20 percent of the state's projected capital budgets for the 13 institutions in the University System of Maryland.

System Chancellor William E. Kirwan, who recommended Avery to the university system regents over two other finalists, called the incoming president's 50 percent graduation goal a "stretch," but said, "It's an area where he does have a lot of experience and success, and he will certainly get all the support I can muster."

Between 2003 and 2005, graduation rates increased from 35 percent to 40 percent at USC Upstate, according to, a Web site that tracks college statistics.

Avery, 60, credits part of the increased success to better student-advising services and "University 101" courses for freshmen with remedial needs. Similar to introductory courses commonly offered at community colleges, University 101 teaches time-management, study habits and financial management skills, as well as basic reading and math.

He said he would like to introduce such a program at Coppin, but would also consider decreasing the number of students requiring serious remediation. One of his first priorities, he said, would be to conduct a thorough analysis of Coppin's admission systems, and perhaps recommend that some students who would today be admitted be instead referred to a community college.

A native of Greenville, S.C., Avery has held various administrative and faculty positions throughout the South, including at Kentucky State University, the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, Benedict College in South Carolina and the University of Tennessee.

He has a doctorate from Brandeis University and a bachelor's degree in sociology from North Carolina A&T. His research focused on the intersection of political science, economics and sociology - with an emphasis on African-American families. His dissertation dealt with the effects of Boston's school desegregation on black families.

USC Upstate is not an historically black college. Coppin criminal justice professor Concetta C. Culliver said Avery's experience at both traditionally white and historically black universities would be an asset at his new position.

"We need our students to be well-rounded, so we need to be well-rounded," she said. Culliver taught at Benedict, a historically black college, while Avery was a dean there. "He promoted higher standards, but also supportive programs for students who need remedial help."

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