Coppin State University President Reginald Avery told an auditorium of roughly 300 students, faculty and staff Wednesday that he is accountable for the direction of the institution and that he will address concerns about his leadership head-on.
Avery, who recently received a vote of no confidence from faculty, fielded about a dozen questions and comments, including that the university needs to improve staff training, better its customer service, provide higher salaries and add perks for loyal staff, amplify school pride and prioritize campus improvements.
"Put pressure on this president, criticize him, argue with him — whatever you want to do. That's OK," said Avery, who is starting his fifth year at Coppin. "I respect that."
The hour-long town hall followed a 55-13 faculty vote in late February. The vote was a result of a series of concerns, including increasing university debt, unfilled positions for three of the university's five deans and a failure last year to distribute $800,000 in need-based aid to students.
Avery laid out several steps he will take to improve his leadership. He plans to hold more open forums and create a president's university advisory council to meet monthly beginning in April.
Beyond holding himself to a high standard, Avery said, every member of the university community has a responsibility to be accountable for a stronger Coppin to emerge. Avery said open lines of communication are key.
Tavante Thomas, a student from Baltimore studying accounting, said the historically black university suffers from a lack of school pride that could lead to other problems, such as students seeking scholarships at other institutions.
"Since I have been here — I am only a sophomore — I have noticed that there is not a lot of school pride as there is at any other HBCUs [historically black colleges and universities] here," Thomas said. "Do you think that is the reason why the university is attacking so many problems?"
Thomas also asked why the university did not distribute a significant amount of aid available to students in 2011.
Avery said he believes the school does have pride and he acknowledged that a mistake had been made in providing the aid last year. Avery said the university intends to compensate the students who qualified for the aid and needed to seek loans when they didn't receive it.
"Did I cause it? No. But, as president, I own it," Avery said.
Avery also added, to applause, that those at the university who don't do their jobs need to lose them. He said customer service is a priority to him, despite several audience comments about an environment at the university that fosters poor relations. For example, several people expressed concerns about communication not only between departments but between the administration and students.
Adina Joseph, a housekeeping supervisor, and her husband, Sylvester, a custodian, said the university used to be a family, in which people helped one another. That's not so anymore, they said, and they asked Avery to promote a change in the work culture.
"If he practices what he preaches, it will be good," Adina Joseph said after the meeting.
The couple also called on Avery to look out for the staff, especially in the housekeeping department, whose work force dropped from 56 to 13 in the past two decades, even as more buildings were constructed on campus.
Avery said he will do what he can to improve the university and do a better job balancing its resources.
"I will promise you this, for the record, we're going to take a look at this," he said, pledging a similar commitment to many of the criticisms raised during the town hall.
Alcott Arthur, interim dean for the School of Arts and Sciences, said the forum — and the criticism — was constructive.
"Some of it is very harsh and blunt, but if you don't hear it, you cannot fix it," Arthur said. "I think this is a very good first step to engage the entire campus. I think the road ahead is still going to be very challenging."
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