President Carolane Williams said she was caught off guard when two trustees called her Monday to say she had been "separated" from the college. Williams, who has headed the college for six years, said she was "confused" by the board's abrupt decision, which was announced Tuesday.
Board members said they had been contemplating a new leader since the summer.
"At that time, the board really felt that there is a new vision and mission for this urban institution and that vision and mission would require new leadership," said the board's chair, Rosemary Gillett-Karam.
Board members said they were troubled by recent declines in enrollment. About 5,480 students enrolled in classes for the fall semester — 22 percent fewer than a year ago. Enrollment in the spring and both summer sessions was also lower than last year.
"Because there has been a decline in enrollment, we are trying to build that new image and new excitement," said Gillett-Karam.
The community college is the third public higher-education institution in the city to experience a leadership shake-up in recent weeks. Coppin State University President Reginald S. Avery announced in late October that he would step aside in January. And on Monday, Morgan State University's board of trustees announced that they would not renew the contract of President David J. Wilson when it expires in June — a move that surprised many students and faculty.
At the troubled community college, Williams had come under fire in recent years. Faculty and staff gave her a vote of no confidence in 2010. The following year, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education placed the school on probation for failing to implement clear standards to measure student performance. The probationary status was removed in June.
Last year, Gov. Martin O'Malley appointed five new members to the board, including Gillett-Karam, a Morgan professor, in an effort to turn the college around.
In addition, a state audit earlier this year questioned the circumstances of a $200,000 payment to the college, a matter that was referred to the attorney general for review. Williams said at the time she was "completely perplexed" by the audit.
Chima Ugah, the former president of BCCC's faculty senate, said the board's decision about Williams surprised him. "There must have been a tipping point," said Ugah, chair of the college's information technology department.
Ugah, who led the faculty senate when it voted no confidence in Williams, said staff members craved stability.
"The institution has been in crisis mode for too long," he said. "It's like we're putting out fires each time."
The board announced that Peggy Bradford, vice president for academic affairs, would immediately take over the president's duties. The board said it hopes to name an interim president by the end of the week and launch a national search for a new president within a few months after a period of "reflection and assessment."
Board members said they would seek a president who would focus on raising graduation rates, increasing fundraising and building stronger relationships with businesses, nonprofits and government agencies to offer more opportunities to students.
The community college has long been plagued by a high dropout rate. Many students, graduates of city public schools, need to complete remedial course work before being able to tackle college-level courses and are juggling jobs, families and other responsibilities.
Williams said she was baffled and disturbed by her abrupt termination. The former provost of North Broward Community College in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., she took the helm of the college six years ago, vowing to improve graduation rates, work more closely with the city public school system and strengthen relationships with businesses and nonprofits.
She arrived shortly after the Abell Foundation wrote two scathing reports of the school and replaced a president who had also drawn criticism from faculty.