Which way for Coppin?

The staff cuts Coppin State University President Reginald Avery announced last week drew protests from union members represented by the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees, along with faculty and students concerned about the direction the school is headed. Mr. Avery insists the layoffs and contract non-renewals were necessary to balance the budget and protect academic programs, but it remains to be seen whether his ambitious efforts to boost student retention and graduation rates will bear fruit.

Mr. Avery was brought in four years ago with a mandate to make changes, and he has done so in a way that, perhaps predictably, has ruffled some feathers. Change is hard anywhere, but especially in academia. Like other four-year institutions in the University System of Maryland, Coppin has had to endure its share of belt-tightening in recent years, and it's probably fair to say Mr. Avery hasn't handled every situation as well as he might have. In February, he was the subject of a no confidence vote by the faculty, which criticized his administration for lacking transparency and questioned his hiring of seven high-priced administrators while leaving many teaching positions unfilled. But whether Mr. Avery's tenure will be judged a success ultimately depends less on complaints about staffing and communicating with faculty than on whether he can produce results.

No one disputes that turning Coppin around is an enormous task. The school serves the most economically challenged community of all of Maryland's four-year public colleges and universities, and its campus is located in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Baltimore City. Many of its students are the first in their family to attend college, and they often come from the worst performing secondary schools in the state. For years, the school's graduation rate has been less than 20 percent, and a third of incoming freshmen drop out after their first year.

Mr. Avery is working to improve those numbers, and over the last two years, first- and second-year retention rates have improved somewhat as a result of a summer remedial math and reading program he created to prepare incoming freshmen for college-level work. That and other initiatives, such as a student resource center that offers on-demand mentoring and tutoring and mid-semester grade reports to identify students having trouble with their courses, have begun to move the school in the right direction, though it clearly still has a long way to go.

That said, Coppin has made undeniable progress in building up its academic programs. It has an excellent undergraduate nursing program whose graduates enjoy one of the highest pass rates of any nursing program in the UM system on state certification exams. After the university took over Rosemont Elementary School, it went from being one of the worst to one of the highest performing elementary schools in the city, and more recently it launched the Coppin Academy, a combined middle school and high school that draws students from across the city. The school is working to strengthen its business, athletics and visual and performing arts programs, and next week it will break ground on a new state-of-the-art science and technology building.

None of these initiatives is likely to turn the school around, however, unless Mr. Avery and his staff can find a way to grow overall enrollment and shepherd more entering freshman through to graduation. The state formula for allocating higher education funds is based student attendance, so Coppin clearly needs to reach out to a more diverse applicant pool to meet its enrollment targets. Though the school has a proud tradition of graduating teachers and social workers, it can no longer rely solely on those programs to take it to the next level.

That is the dilemma Mr. Avery is facing — he can't keep adding more programs or enhancing existing ones unless he attracts and graduates more students, but without high-quality programs, faculty and staff in a variety of areas, including the sciences and technology, it's hard to expand enrollment. The school needs to define a mission that allows it to take all its imperatives into account, then thoroughly analyze the data to find out which programs really are making a difference. The state has been very supportive of Coppin's efforts to transform itself, but the jury is still out on whether the follow-through delivers the kind of results everyone wants to see.

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