The state Board of Regents will delay searching for a new president of Coppin State University until 2015 and instead announced Tuesday a two-year contract for the interim leader, who was brought out of retirement to overhaul the ailing Baltimore institution.
Officials said the move to "official" president gives Mortimer H. Neufville the teeth to make the sweeping changes necessary to improve academic and administrative operations at the historically black college, which has the lowest graduation rate in the state, about 15 percent.
"It was clear to me and the members of the board that we were not in a position to search for a new president at this time, given the rather significant actions that need to be taken," said University System Chancellor William E. "Brit" Kirwan. "Difficult decisions are going to have to be made. It's not the kind of environment you want to bring in a new president."
A board committee, formed after the last president announced plans to step down late last year, found that Coppin is under-enrolled by 2,000 students with an enrollment of 3,612 last fall and that it has been mismanaged in terms of both finances and personnel. The committee recommended that the college be more selective in admissions and reorganize its academics and administration.
An improvement plan with those goals was approved last month, and Neufville, who took on the interim role in January, was charged with leading the transformation in conjunction with Kirwan. It quickly became clear that it wouldn't be a quick job, Neufville said.
"An interim position can last so long and no more, and I think things would continue to be in limbo if the interim had continued for much longer," Neufville said, adding that interim presidents tend to leave the hard decisions for their successors.
"By making this a time-sensitive contract, I think that the decisions can be firm and people will know that the university is on a permanent and stable track," he added.
His salary will be $265,000 — $10,000 more than the pay he received as interim.
Neufville, 73, previously held several leadership roles — including vice president for academic affairs and dean of agricultural sciences and research director — during 14 years at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, another historically black institution. He served as interim president there from mid-2011 to July of last year.
He plans to return to retirement at the end of the contract, which expires in June 2015.
"After we set things in motion, and the university is on the right track, then you bring in a new person to provide the leadership on a longer-term basis, someone who can come in here for five to 10 years," Neufville said.
The decision to formalize Neufville's role was lauded by Coppin's Faculty Senate. Its president released a letter sent to Neufville on Tuesday praising his commitment to working with faculty members and his recent selections for certain administrative positions.
"Coppin faculty members know that we must all — faculty, students, and administration — join forces in order to meet the challenges that we face as an institution," Faculty Senate President Virletta Bryant wrote in the letter. "We anticipate that your continuing leadership, as well as the renewed leadership of [recently appointed] Dr. Sadie Gregory as our Provost, will support the success of our efforts."
John L. Hudgins, president of the Coppin chapter of the American Association of University Professors, was more cautious in his reaction.
"I sincerely and without any apology hope that your first priority is to put in place a credible and effective shared governance structure and process," Hudgins wrote in a message to Neufville, shared with The Baltimore Sun. "Your three most recent predecessors … have demonstrated beyond a doubt the danger, stagnation, and sometimes regression an institution (CSU) can experience with a president dominated campus."
Hudgins added that Neufville had his full support and that he was "inclined to think, this time, perhaps the chancellor made a good decision" in his choice of president.
Del. John Bohanan, a Southern Maryland Democrat who heads the subcommittee that oversees the school's budget, said it is "a little bit early to tell" whether Neufville can turn Coppin around.
"We certainly hope it pans out," he said. "Coppin certainly needs a boost."
Neufville began the academic and financial reorganization within the university by restructuring the budget and reducing the number of internal schools from six to four. He also appointed the new provost and has hired a new vice president for administration and finance.
"It's really streamlining the operation to be more efficient," he said. "I believe it will take some time, but we are on track."
Kirwan said Neufville is doing a "superb" job, and that the campus has gotten "completely organized." Teams have been assembled to lead various action items under a strict timeline, and the board will receive interim reports to show progress.
"For him to try to carry out this difficult task carrying the title 'interim president' just didn't seem to really represent the kind of leadership we are expecting of him," Kirwan said.
Baltimore state Sen. Catherine E. Pugh, who was a member of the Coppin committee and represents the university's district, said it would take about two years for the recommendations to be implemented and that Neufville was "certainly fully equipped to do what needs to be done."
She expects the university system to establish a search committee during his tenure to determine "who we're going to bring in as the president who will lead us through the 21st century."
Coppin has been targeted for transformation before. A 2001 report recommended an influx of cash to make up for years of underfunding at Coppin and other historically black colleges and universities.
A. Dwight Pettit, a Baltimore lawyer and former Board of Regents member, said he had no opinion on Neufville's appointment, but he was skeptical about the plan to revitalize Coppin, given years of seeming apathy by university system leaders.
"The proof is going to be in the pudding," he said. "I would be pleasantly surprised if they were moving in the right direction."
Baltimore Sun reporter Michael Dresser contributed to this article.