The president of Baltimore City Community College was forced out this week, following a tumultuous two years and a recent dramatic drop in enrollment.
President Carolane Williams said she was caught off guard when two trustees called her Monday to say she had been "separated" from the college. Williams, who has headed the college for six years, said she was "confused" by the board's abrupt decision, which was announced Tuesday.
"It came as a surprise, because there had been no previous conversations about it or any leadership issues that they had been concerned about, either from the board chair or the board as a whole," Williams said. "And then the abruptness and the timing. I can't explain it."
Board members said they had been contemplating a new leader since the summer.
"At that time, the board really felt that there is a new vision and mission for this urban institution and that vision and mission would require new leadership," said the board's chair, Rosemary Gillett-Karam.
Board members said they were troubled by recent declines in enrollment. About 5,480 students enrolled in classes for the fall semester — 22 percent fewer than a year ago. Enrollment in the spring and both summer sessions was also lower than last year.
"Because there has been a decline in enrollment, we are trying to build that new image and new excitement," said Gillett-Karam.
The community college is the third public higher-education institution in the city to experience a leadership shake-up in recent weeks. Coppin State University President Reginald S. Avery announced in late October that he would step aside in January. And on Monday, Morgan State University's board of trustees announced that they would not renew the contract of President David J. Wilson when it expires in June — a move that surprised many students and faculty.
At the troubled community college, Williams had come under fire in recent years. Faculty and staff gave her a vote of no confidence in 2010. The following year, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education placed the school on probation for failing to implement clear standards to measure student performance. The probationary status was removed in June.
Last year, Gov. Martin O'Malley appointed five new members to the board, including Gillett-Karam, a Morgan professor, in an effort to turn the college around.
In addition, a state audit earlier this year questioned the circumstances of a $200,000 payment to the college, a matter that was referred to the attorney general for review. Williams said at the time she was "completely perplexed" by the audit.
Chima Ugah, the former president of BCCC's faculty senate, said the board's decision about Williams surprised him. "There must have been a tipping point," said Ugah, chair of the college's information technology department.
Ugah, who led the faculty senate when it voted no confidence in Williams, said staff members craved stability.
"The institution has been in crisis mode for too long," he said. "It's like we're putting out fires each time."
The board announced that Peggy Bradford, vice president for academic affairs, would immediately take over the president's duties. The board said it hopes to name an interim president by the end of the week and launch a national search for a new president within a few months after a period of "reflection and assessment."
Board members said they would seek a president who would focus on raising graduation rates, increasing fundraising and building stronger relationships with businesses, nonprofits and government agencies to offer more opportunities to students.
The community college has long been plagued by a high dropout rate. Many students, graduates of city public schools, need to complete remedial course work before being able to tackle college-level courses and are juggling jobs, families and other responsibilities.
Williams said she was baffled and disturbed by her abrupt termination. The former provost of North Broward Community College in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., she took the helm of the college six years ago, vowing to improve graduation rates, work more closely with the city public school system and strengthen relationships with businesses and nonprofits.
She arrived shortly after the Abell Foundation wrote two scathing reports of the school and replaced a president who had also drawn criticism from faculty.
In an interview Tuesday, Williams expressed concerns that the board's swift action would raise questions about her performance.
"The abruptness does give the impression that something happened, like some big trigger," she said. "I do want to make it clear that there has been no malfeasance, because short of a reason, it seems strange."
Williams said her contract allows her to be terminated with or without cause. Which option the college chooses will determine the severance and benefits she is entitled to, she said.
"I'm sure any paperwork I receive will clear that up for me," she said.
Williams said she could not think of a good cause for her termination. She said the college has seen a 26 percent increase in the number of graduates in the last two years, and a recent "climate survey" showed a boost in morale and confidence in leadership among employees since the no-confidence vote.
"We worked very hard to get off probation, and so the college has really taken a turn for the better and was on an upward trajectory including in relationships" among staff, she said.
Meanwhile, Morgan officials announced Tuesday that Wilson, who has served as president since 2010, is expected to join the university as a professor when his contract expires in June.
The board's decision not to renew Wilson's contract came as a shock to students and professors, most of whom had left campus for winter break. More than 500 students had signed an online petition by Tuesday evening asking that Wilson remain in office.
Sources close to the board said Monday that the vote to remove Wilson was 8-7. Chairman Dallas Evans did not returns calls for comment Monday and Tuesday.
Councilman Robert W. Curran, whose Northeast Baltimore district includes Morgan's campus, said the move was a "step backward" for Morgan.
"It's a real shame that there are some on the board of regents that might be shortsighted and not share his vision for the future," said Curran, praising Wilson's efforts to expand the campus west of Hillen Road.
But some students said that Wilson, who holds a doctorate in education from Harvard, was not a good fit for the university.
"He didn't seem genuine," said Chinedu Nwokeafor, a junior who heads the X Assembly, a multimedia and student advocacy group.
Nwokeafor said X Assembly members recently met with Wilson to vent their concerns about a lack of healthy food on campus and the president responded in "condescending" tones.
The speech communications major said he was not satisfied with Wilson's response to a recent string of violent episodes on campus. Two people were shot on campus this semester. In the spring, a Morgan student who had allegedly acted violently and erratically on campus was charged with killing a family friend and eating his heart and part of his brain.
"We've done many initiatives to inform him that we as a student body don't feel safe," said Nwokeafor. "But there was no real action."
In a letter sent Monday night to the "Morgan Family," Wilson questioned the board's decision.
"I stand proudly on the body of work we have been able to achieve during my tenure," he wrote. "It is indeed unfortunate that half of the members of the Board of Regents and I do not see it the same way."
Attempts to reach Wilson on Tuesday were unsuccessful.