Presiding in a pandemic: straight talk with CSU president

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Coppin State University President Anthony Jenkins is a Washington D.C. native, an army veteran and a first-generation college graduate of Fayetteville State University. President Jenkins has dedicated his life to advocating for quality higher education. (Courtesy of Coppin State University)

By Jessica Dortch
AFRO News Editor

Dr. Anthony Jenkins became Coppin State University’s (CSU) eight president on May 26, 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic continued to run rampant throughout the world. Although he may be new to his position, he is a well respected leader in education and an advocate for creating opportunities for people of color to pursue higher education. 

One year into the pandemic and almost one year as president of CSU, Dr. Jenkins presented his state of the university address to students, faculty and staff on March 4. The Washington D.C. native made time in his busy schedule to have some straight talk with the AFRO. 

AFRO: What were some of your concerns coming into your position at CSU?  

Dr. Jenkins: Upon my arrival, I was focused on making sure we were properly positioned to address the health and  safety needs of our campus. Not surprisingly, the campus community did a sound job of flipping the campus and successfully closing out the 2020 spring semester. I was also focused on enrollment and retention. That is why in my first semester, I assembled three important comprehensive committees: enrollment, retention and communications. These were a first of its kind at the university. The campus community understands the significance of these committees and how the strategies they  develop can move us closer to the short and long-term goals. 

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AFRO: In your address, you touched on how students and staff used technology to share their voice  and expertise, like in establishing the Coppin COVID-19 task force. In what ways has the pandemic turned into the ultimate teachable moment for CSU? 

DJ: As a result of the pandemic, we have identified and developed stronger, more efficient methods of  educating our students and conducting university business. For example, we found ways to centralize processes, expand our technology use, improve campus-wide communications and assess our services.  

AFRO: Can you speak to the strength and power of teamwork in ensuring the success of the university amidst the challenges of the pandemic? 

DJ: As I have said before, you learn a lot about the people around you in times of crisis, and what I have  learned about Coppin is that we are a dynamic university. As a campus, and team, we collaborated  to ensure our students remained our top priority. We provided technology support to students in  need, our Coppin COVID-19 Task Force developed and implemented policies that kept our campus safe. We stood up our on-campus test site, led by the faculty and students in our nationally ranked  nursing program, which allowed us to keep our COVID positivity rate, over the last year, below the city, state and national thresholds. Per our last test results, we had zero cases on campus.  

Our faculty remained steadfast in their ability to continue teaching at a high level after converting  their teaching modality which helped us achieve the highest six-year graduation rate in the history of  our university. That is the strength and power of the Coppin State family.  

AFRO: Why is it so crucial now more than ever to foster a sense of community and family among staff, faculty and students? 

DJ: Over the past year our nation has been tested unlike any time in recent memory. The political divide, racial unrest and the pandemic has pushed many people to their mental and physical limits. Colleges and universities are not immune to this, we are but microcosms of our larger society. The challenges that our students, faculty and staff face in their lives are transposed into the campus community and potentially could upset the balance of campus life. Such unbalance presents opportunities for higher stop-out or dropout rates, a decline in student success, mental health issues, and feelings of being overwhelmed by faculty and staff. Therefore, during these times it is more important than ever to  foster a nurturing and supporting university environment. One where you never lose sight of how fragile life can become. Our students tell us we demonstrate this high-touch, high ethic of care philosophy daily, and I believe it is important to double-down in times of crises.  

From my experiences, such a holistic approach of support can be the difference between institutions  thriving or unraveling. I am inspired by the Eagle Nation and how we continue to support one another doing these extraordinary times.  

AFRO: You stressed that regardless of reductions from the General Assembly and a slight decline in enrollment, the university is financially stable. What did it take to make that happen?  

DJ: Simply put, it took a team effort. Years ago, we began laying the framework to right size our university. Great thought was given to being more cognizant as to how we used our resources. When I arrived at Coppin nearly a year ago, we built off of that concept and sharpened our strategic focus on how to better use our resources to meet the priorities of the university. This allowed us to reduce spending.  

AFRO: You have dedicated your life to making college a successful experience for all those who choose  to attend. In what ways does your expertise in this area play into your overall vision for the  university? 

DJ: As a first-generation college student, I know first-hand the power of a quality education. I am an  example of how it can enhance and change the trajectory of one’s life. My experiences growing up  are similar to many of the students attending Coppin or sitting in Baltimore City high schools. I want  for them what my undergraduate university gave to me: a transformational opportunity.  

Throughout my career, I have worked at many of our nation’s best universities and as a result I have  acquired an in-depth understanding of higher education that drives my unwavering commitment to  transforming the educational experience for all students, regardless of their start in life. 

At Coppin, we are committed to expanding access and opportunity, regardless of a student’s zip code  or household income. We believe these factors should never dictate the opportunities one has in life.  Thus, my vision for us is to become a leader in urban higher education that transforms the lives of  students, from all backgrounds. 

AFRO: What is one main takeaway from the address that you’d like to share with the Coppin family? 

DJ: That is a great question. First, I want to thank them for their great work during these extraordinary times. Also, I want them to know and embrace, when we continue to operate with a “We over Me”  mindset, there is nothing we cannot accomplish.