For Anthony Jenkins, education has always been the most personal of endeavors.
He felt it as a young man growing up in Southeast Washington, where his mother insisted that every experience — whether laying concrete or seeking a doctorate — be treated as fodder for lifelong learning. He felt it as a 17-year-old surviving U.S. Army boot camp under a sweltering South Carolina sun and as the first member of his family to graduate from college. He felt it as a rising administrator at universities in North Carolina, Florida and West Virginia, where he drew energy from face-to-face encounters with students who reminded him of himself.
So what a time for Jenkins to step into his job as the new president of Coppin State University. Every day, he goes to his office on the West Baltimore campus. And every day, he feels the absence of his university’s students, separated from their normal routines by the coronavirus pandemic. He has not met them, and yet he misses them.
“It is different,” Jenkins said. “I’ve often made the comment, even prior to COVID-19, that if you took away our students, on most campuses you’d just have some nice brick and mortar. They are the life.”
If the pandemic was not enough to complicate Jenkins’ debut, he also began his new job the same week protests swept Baltimore in the wake of Minneapolis police killing George Floyd, for which a former officer is charged with second-degree murder.
Jenkins, 48, earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Fayetteville State and North Carolina Central universities, respectively. Students from both historically black universities risked their lives on the front lines of the civil rights movement. So he needn’t look far to feel a connection with young people expressing themselves in the current struggle for racial justice. He and his wife, Toinette, are raising two teenage daughters in this unsettled age.
Jenkins said he’ll urge Coppin students not to stop with demonstrations but to engage with society’s major institutions and demand accountability.
“We want students to understand that participating in demonstrations and sharing their voices and their concerns, that is something that is part of education,” he said. “When you look at social change throughout our history, whether it was the students in Greensboro, North Carolina, or protesting the Vietnam War or the women’s movement, many of those efforts came from colleges and university campuses. That is something we’ll continue to support our students in.
"They have a responsibility to fight for the world not as it is, but for the way it should be.”
He plans to hold a virtual town hall with the Coppin community to discuss next steps. The university regularly sends graduates from its criminal justice program to the Baltimore Police Department, so Jenkins views the issues of the moment from multiple sides.
“How do we rebuild trust in our community policing partnerships?” he said. “It’s going to be very important that we get this right. This can’t be just another hot issue for a quick minute and then we move on.”
University System of Maryland Chancellor Jay Perman said Jenkins is the right person to step in at this uncertain moment because he’s a seasoned university president who’s comfortable in his own shoes.
“He comes from a presidency, at West Virginia State, where he moved the institution in terms of student success, where he moved the institution in terms of research enterprise, so he’s not going to be daunted by a particular crisis,” Perman said.
Perman was not chancellor when the university system’s Board of Regents appointed Jenkins in December but said he’s greatly enjoyed getting to know him as they’ve discussed Coppin’s future.
“I like the guy,” Perman said. “He’s a very engaging guy … and he’s well-prepared for this.”
Jenkins wears his educational experience as a badge of identity. He spent his youth in Washington, where his mother worked in the D.C. Superior Court system and his father was a hospital technician.
“By no means did I grow up in stark poverty, but we were not middle class either,” he said. “Going to McDonald’s, for us that was a treat.”
Against that backdrop, his mother lauded schooling as the ultimate game-changer for a young black person.
“That’s why so many people fought for you to have the opportunity to be exposed to education,” she told him. “And why so many people fought for you not to have that opportunity.”
He chose to work in education so he could push her message forward.
“He knows firsthand the power of a quality education for young people who grow up in circumstances where all the talent in the world is there, but opportunity is not,” Perman said. “And that’s the student that Coppin serves.”
It was in the Army where Jenkins first sensed he might become a leader. After his mother signed the papers for him to enlist before his 18th birthday, he went to boot camp at Fort Jackson in Columbia, South Carolina. There, a drill sergeant named Santiago made him platoon guide, in charge of organizing 300 older men from disparate backgrounds.
“I still use many of those skills today,” he said.
Jenkins’ predecessor at Coppin, Maria Thompson, stepped down in June 2019 after four years on the job. She helped rebuild faculty morale and clean up the university’s finances after an oversight committee found evidence of serious mismanagement in 2013. But Coppin’s enrollment, retention and six-year graduation rates still lag behind those of other four-year institutions in the state.
Despite those statistics, Jenkins does not see himself as a reformer. Rather, he hopes to amplify Coppin’s best traits (its nursing school, its affordability, its ample online offerings) and convey what he described as the university’s essential role in educating Baltimore residents. That means working with students who begin college at many different points in life and who might not be able to finish in four, five or even six years because of work and family demands or economic constraints.
“I think for far too long we’ve tried this ‘one size fits all’ approach in higher education, and it doesn’t work,” he said. “For us to take University Y, that has 98 percent traditional students who are supported by mom and dad … and compare that to a Coppin State University, where a significant number of individuals are adult learners working full-time jobs, and they have families … that’s unreasonable.
"Sometimes, it takes our students a lot longer to get over the finish line, but we get them over the finish line.”
University System of Maryland leaders praised Jenkins for building enrollment and creating new programs in his previous role as president of West Virginia State. But in a December interview, the chair of that university’s faculty senate described Jenkins’ performance as mixed, noting that he boosted enrollment by bringing in high school students to take college courses rather than recruiting full-time university students.
Charlotte Wood, a professor of nursing and president of Coppin’s faculty senate, said she’s encouraged by Jenkins’ experience managing and expanding historically black institutions.
“I think it’s very important to understand the culture and the people you’re working with in order to understand motivation and how to motivate,” she said. “I like the idea that he has come from an environment where he was not only able to diversify, but he’s increased enrollment … and he’s grown them in a very strategic kind of way.”
Wood has met with Jenkins on Skype and said he’s struck a perfect tone with his outspoken pride in “Eagle nation.”
“I feel a sense of optimism from him,” she said, “which makes me feel motivated.”
University of Baltimore President Kurt L. Schmoke has floated the idea of combining Coppin, UB and Baltimore City Community College under one umbrella. But Jenkins said that concept, up for study by the state legislature, is not on his radar for now.
He’s entirely focused on familiarizing himself with Coppin, even if he can’t do it face-to-face.
Jenkins held a virtual meet-and-greet with more than 700 faculty members, alumni and students before he officially took over. He’s spoken with student government President Crystal Chukwu and engaged in online meetings with other groups of students and faculty members. He spends most days on video calls from 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.
He’s plenty busy. But it’s not education as he knows it and won’t be until students and professors show up for the scheduled Aug. 31 start of the fall semester.
“I cannot wait until they return,” Jenkins said.