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Agency threatens FAMU's funding
The beleaguered university has two months to mend its ways or lose millions of dollars in grants from the national science foundation.
By DAVID KARP
Published May 4, 2005
The National Science Foundation says it will terminate all of its federal grants at Florida A&M University if the historically black college does not solve longstanding financial problems in two months.
Meanwhile, the federal agency has put all FAMU grants recommended for approval on hold.
In a stern letter to FAMU interim president Castell Bryant, federal officials gave her until June 30 to prove she had corrected problems identified more than a year ago.
If FAMU does not solve the problems, the agency said it will suspend all of its grants and then - after a two-month review - permanently cut off funding to the university.
"It would have a major impact," said FAMU professor Charles Weatherford, the incoming chairman of the physics department.
The school would have to give up at least 14 active grants, which have paid out $11.4-million so far, according to the NSF's Web site. That would make it difficult for professors to conduct research, hire graduate assistants and pay for administrative expenses.
And it would come on the heels of other major blows. In an attempt to untangle accounting problems that have dogged the school for years, Bryant already has imposed a universitywide spending moratorium and told professors they will get no raises this year.
The NSF, which has a $5.5-billion annual budget, provides 20 percent of all federal research dollars at American universities.
Few professors would work at a school that can't accept NSF money. The agency's warning also could prompt other agencies to look at the school's federal awards.
"We are all concerned," Weatherford said. "It will definitely affect retention of younger faculty, and it will definitely affect recruitment of new faculty."
Weatherford stopped applying for NSF grants years ago because of the university's financial problems. Many other professors don't bother either, he said.
Weatherford said his last NSF grant ended after FAMU failed to provide, as promised, matching funds.
Attempts to reach Bryant and FAMU provost Larry Robinson were unsuccessful Tuesday. Bryant has not publicly discussed the NSF's April 27 letter or the agency's longstanding concerns. She also has not explained her recent decision to close down the university's Institute on Urban Policy and Commerce and fire all its employees. She cited only vague "accountability" issues.
Two professors who were at a faculty retreat Tuesday with Bryant said she told the group she was working on the NSF issue. They said Bryant did not provide details.
"She claims she is doing everything she can to get to the bottom of it," said professor Bill Tucker, who heads FAMU's faculty senate. "It is a new fire every day."
Bryant assumed FAMU's presidency four months ago, after trustees fired former president Fred Gainous. When Bryant took over, she asked the consulting firm KPMG to review the school's finances.
Bryant said she found things in disarray. The university could not balance its books or track how it spent millions in taxpayer money. Bryant called the fiscal outlook "grim" and "frightening."
NSF's chief financial officer and its inspector general already were concerned. In February 2004, they told FAMU they were worried about the school's ability to manage and account for federal money.
An NSF spokeswoman reached late Tuesday could not provide more details.
According to last week's letter, the university came up with an action plan. But after monitoring the plan for more than a year, the NSF said it found that FAMU had not made "satisfactory progress." The agency also questioned how FAMU had reported on its progress.
"Many items that FAMU listed as completed were found to be lacking in form and substance," said the letter, signed by grant and agreement officer Brian Mannion. "This is unacceptable to NSF."