Coppin State University President Reginald S. Avery
The president of Coppin State University says he won't be derailed by a recent vote of no confidence from faculty members and promises rapid efforts to improve communications with those who have criticized his leadership.
"I certainly take all of the issues, whether it's budget or academic affairs, seriously," said President Reginald Avery in an interview Friday. "I just think there has been a lack of communication, and if I need to do more to improve that, I will."
Avery said he wants to hold a town hall meeting as early as next week and will also hold meetings with smaller groups of faculty to hear their concerns.
The faculty voted no confidence in Avery's leadership by a 55-13 margin at a meeting Monday. Leaders of the faculty senate issued a list of complaints including excessive turnover in top academic positions and poor budget management.
Nicholas Eugene, president of the faculty senate, said he takes Avery's words about better communication as a positive sign. But he said he has yet to see the constructive written response faculty leaders have requested.
"I think he owes us that," Eugene said.
Coppin faculty leaders said they see the vote more as a plea for healthier relations than as a demand for Avery's resignation.
"In many cases it has become a wake-up call which allows the president to re-focus and move forward on a variety of critical issues affecting the institution," wrote John L. Hudgins, president of Coppin's chapter of the American Association of University Professors, in an e-mail to his colleagues.
William E. Kirwan, chancellor of the state university system, said Avery is working on a written response to the concerns and has demonstrated a "very strong desire to reach out to the faculty senate to have a dialogue."
"No one likes to face a vote of no confidence," Kirwan said. "But it's not like it's never happened before at a university. Where there's a common sense of wanting to advance an institution, common ground can be found."
Kirwan said the vote did not shake his confidence in Avery's leadership.
Two other Maryland college presidents have faced votes of no confidence in recent years. Carolane Williams, president of Baltimore City Community College, and Mickey Burnim, president of Bowie State University, both endured such votes in 2010 and remain in charge of their respective institutions.
Avery arrived from South Carolina in 2008 with the goal of improving Coppin's six-year graduation rate to 50 percent within three years. Instead, the six-year rate dropped from 20 percent to a low of 13 percent before ticking up to 15 percent for students who entered in 2004.
Avery has said that he was surprised by the depth of problems, both within the university and among the broader population of Baltimore City.
He has implemented some pieces of a broader plan to raise graduation rates, including a summer academy for incoming freshmen. And he says the effects of those efforts will begin to show up in graduation rates over the next few years.
"It's beginning to bear fruit, and we're pleased with that," he said.
Kirwan said he's also optimistic that this year's freshman retention numbers will demonstrate the impact of Avery's programs.
But Coppin faculty members are skeptical. "I don't think we have a plan as to what we're going to do next," Eugene said of graduation rates. "We need to see something on paper so the faculty can evaluate where we stand, and I don't know of anything."
The low graduation rates have also exposed Coppin to scrutiny from the state legislature.
Del. John Bohanan, a St. Mary's County Democrat who chairs an education subcommittee, said he doesn't know enough to comment on the vote of no confidence. "But Coppin continues to be an institution that we're concerned about," Bohanan said. "For the amount of resources that we're putting in, what kind of return are we getting?"
Asked if he has sensed a turnaround prompted by Avery's plans, Bohanan said, "Honestly, I haven't seen it yet."
Avery's relations with faculty leaders were not always so stormy. He arrived at a time when professors were upset because their input had been watered down in a report to the university's accrediting agency. But faculty members emphasized that Avery seemed more open to their concerns than his predecessor, Stanley F. Battle.
But none of that good will was evident in the list of complaints faculty members delivered with their vote of no confidence.
In fact, they criticized Avery for excluding faculty from a 2011 committee designed to study Coppin's progress on a 2001 plan to revitalize the university.
Faculty members also criticized Avery for more than doubling the number of positions in his Cabinet to 10 when the university is facing budget deficits; running through four provosts in four years; failing to hire deans for three colleges; and shifting $800,000 from financial aid funds to cover 2011 budget shortfalls.
"It's not like I'm sitting back and saying, 'Let's not hire anybody,'" Avery said when asked about the vacant dean positions and the turnover among provosts. "We've had searches that have, quite frankly, not proved to be fruitful. I understand the frustrations."