Embattled Coppin State University President Reginald S. Avery will step down in January, nearly a year after faculty gave him a vote of no confidence for lacking vision and before his initiatives to improve the state's lowest graduation rates have shown any progress.
Avery, 66, who announced the move Wednesday, said that the vote did not factor into his decision, but that he felt the time was right to "step aside" after five years leading the West Baltimore institution. He acknowledged that a turnaround hadn't occurred, but said he plans to return to the classroom where he would continue seeking to improve student engagement on the campus and in the community.
"It will take a while to get the full measure of the impact of these programs, but so far we're very excited," Avery said of his initiatives.
Avery's departure leaves Coppin State without a leader as it seeks to reverse declining student retention, improve a rocky financial condition and prepare more students for careers in health care and sciences. The historically black university serves about 3,600 to 4,000 students, most of whom come from city neighborhoods and require remedial education.
University System of Maryland Chancellor William E. Kirwan credited Avery with placing a focus on student retention and graduation rates through programs like a summer academy for incoming freshmen, but echoed Avery in saying more progress needs to be made.
When Avery arrived in 2008, he set a goal of improving Coppin's six-year graduation rate from 20 percent to 50 percent within three years. Instead, the rate fell to a low of 13 percent, rebounding to 15 percent for students who entered in 2004.
"I don't think they had yet produced results that he and others wanted to see, but I do think they sort of set the stage for advances that would come in the future," Kirwan said.
Kirwan said the search for an interim president would begin soon.
Faculty had criticized Avery over Coppin's academics and expressed no confidence in him in a 55-13 vote on Feb. 20.
"We feel that despite the efforts of faculty, Dr. Avery's leadership has resulted in a dilution of the academic quality at CSU," Nicholas Eugene, leader of the university's faculty senate, wrote in a letter to Kirwan. Eugene could not be reached Wednesday for comment.
The faculty pointed out that the position of provost, which is the second-highest administrative position at the university, had high turnover; three of the university's five schools had not had deans for several years; and Coppin failed to disburse $800,000 in need-based aid to students in 2011.
Avery responded by expressing an intent to communicate with faculty better and to improve training of university staff, customer service, and pay and benefits for university employees. About 300 students, faculty and staff filled an auditorium at a March town hall meeting in response to the vote, criticizing him for a lack of school spirit on the campus and poor staffing levels.
Avery said Wednesday that the school was making progress but that he felt the time was right for new leadership. He said he had set five years as a goal for his stint as president and was ready to return to the classroom. His background is in public policy and social work, and he hopes to teach classes that get students involved in the community.
"Innovative teaching would go a long way in getting these students involved in research initiatives," Avery said.
Avery's resignation came unexpectedly to some. Avery was absent from Tuesday's meeting of the university's board of visitors, said state Sen. Delores Kelley, a board member who was a professor and dean at the school for 30 years.
Patrick Moran, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees' Maryland chapter, said the resignation announcement took him by surprise in the midst of negotiations over a new contract for university staff. The union held protests against Avery in July over layoffs.
But many said they saw it as an opportunity to plan a new course for the university. Moran said the union looks forward to working with the next leader.
"It's important that whoever else is coming in recognizes that employees have rights and we want to make sure the employees are able to make the best situation possible for the students," Moran said.
Kelley said that under Avery, university officials focused heavily on the depressed neighborhoods surrounding the campus, but that in the future, more attention should be turned inward.
"It serves a population in Baltimore City largely which nobody else is paying attention to," Kelley said. "My feeling is that's good but it's got to stay in proportion and you've got to keep paying attention to your core mission."
Kelley urged university officials to take their time in searching for a replacement, a process that can take as long as a year. Taking time to pull in stakeholders from inside and outside the university could help ensure that a new leader moves the university in the right direction, she said.
Kirwan said the aim is to pick up where Avery left off — but with a fresh perspective and strategies.
"We want to find the person who shares Reg's values but who brings new energy and new ideas, serving the needs of the student body in a way that will promote a greater level of success," Kirwan said.
An earlier version of this article gave an incorrect figure for Coppin's student enrollment. The Sun regrets the error.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun