For Dr. Maria Thompson, president of Coppin State University, education is a family business.

Dr. Maria Thompson, president of Coppin State University, said the university creates opportunities for “underrepresented” and “differently prepared populations.”

Dr. Maria Thompson, president of Coppin State University, said the university creates opportunities for “underrepresented” and “differently prepared populations.”

Her paternal grandmother, both of her parents, and her two older sisters were all educators, so it seemed only right that she would follow suit. Thompson became Coppin’s seventh president in 2015, making her the first woman to hold the position at the university named for a woman—Fanny Jackson Coppin, the first African American woman in the country to become a head principal.

“To work at one of the few universities that’s named after a woman, after an African-American woman, after an African American woman educator—it’s hard for me to describe,” Thompson told the AFRO.  “I could’ve never dreamed that I would be president of a campus that carries her legacy.”

Thompson studied at Tennessee State University before earning a master’s in textiles from Ohio State University. She earned a doctorate in textile science and economics from the University of Tennessee, and went on to receive specialized training in leadership from several entities, including the Institute for Educational Management at Harvard University in 2011.

She spent 13 years of her career as a leading research administrator at Tennessee State University where she orchestrated a plan that increased externally-funded research projects and the construction of several research facilities. In 2011, she went on to serve as provost and vice president for academic affairs at the State University of New York (SUNY) Oneonta where she initiated the first academic master plan for the campus and solidified the university’s long-term strategic position.

In 2015, Thompson replaced interim President Mortimer H. Neufville at Coppin, who was appointed to a two-year term while the University System of Maryland (USM) Board of Regents’ Special Review Committee established a plan to increase student retention and graduation after the faculty at Coppin took a vote of no-confidence in former President Reginald Avery in early 2012, citing financial mismanagement and one of the lowest six-year completion rates in the state. Avery resigned in 2013, and Neufville helped balance the budget and raised graduation rates. Thompson plans to continue the commitment to removing barriers toward college completion.

“Dr. Thompson has had such an impressive career in higher education,” said USM Chancellor William E. “Brit” Kirwan in a 2015 statement announcing Thompson’s appointment. He praised her work at SUNY Oneonta and her leadership at Tennessee State, noting that both Tennessee and Coppin are HBCUs in urban areas.

Thompson said that she sees the urban location as an asset because most Americans live in or near urban areas and it affords the university the opportunity to find solutions to problems most of the country’s population faces. She also said that the “community-engaged teaching and learning,” where the faculty and students utilize the university’s West Baltimore location as a living lab for the community projects and related data that are embedded in many of Coppin’s courses.

To grow and graduate a greater number of minority students educated in STEM fields, Thompson said, the university formally opened their $83 million STEM center in October 2015, which serves both Coppin and the University of Baltimore as a “mecca of research.” The university is currently working on several research projects, including the development of a specially-designed contact lens to detect glaucoma and work in nanotechnology with the use of pomegranates and pomegranate juice to extend cell life. There is also a student research team working with a hospital in Arkansas to develop biomarkers, or disease indicators, for children.

Additionally, the university now offers a doctorate in nursing practice as its first doctorate program. It joins the 33 majors and 12 graduate degree programs that Coppin has offered in nursing, business, teacher education and STEM among others.

Thompson also said that Coppin is the first in the state to award micro credentials, or badges, to students who demonstrate proficiency in specific skills like problem solving, leadership and critical thinking. Over time, Thompson added, if a student were to acquire a certain number of these micro credentials, they could earn a full bachelor’s degree.

“This is a nontraditional path to education,” Thompson said. “It opens up education to more working people who may not have time to sit through a whole semester…If they can get a credential within a specific competency skillset, this opens the door to them to further their education while they continue to work.”

As president of a campus that focuses on creating opportunity for “underrepresented” and “differently prepared populations,” Thompson said she plans to continue building on the assets that she said makes for a rich learning environment.

“I consider our faculty and their expertise a gift that we give to our students that challenges them to think outside the box, help them obtain a 21st century education and be prepared to successfully compete in a global economy,” Thompson said.