FAMU chair filled by its donor

Shirley Cunningham Jr. gave the FAMU law school $1-million for an endowed chair. He got the position and a $100,000 salary.

Published June 4, 2005

The administrators at the Florida A&M University law school were thrilled with the $1-million donation. Not only would Kentucky lawyer Shirley Cunningham Jr. create an endowed chair at the new school, his gift would provide FAMU another $750,000 in matching money from the state.

But there was a catch.

The new Shirley Cunningham Jr. chair that Cunningham agreed to fund in 2001 would be filled by none other than Shirley Cunningham Jr.

His annual salary: $100,000, plus benefits worth about $25,000.

Cunningham's employment ended a few weeks ago when FAMU administrators removed him from the payroll. Interim FAMU president Castell Bryant told the St. Petersburg Times an investigation found no evidence he did work to earn his salary.

Several professors and students interviewed by the Times said they have only seen Cunningham on campus once, and that was during an unusual payroll audit conducted by the school this spring. They said they have never seen him teach a class, hold office hours or attend faculty meetings.

Cunningham, 50, is not listed as a professor on the law school's Web site. His name was not included in a list of faculty at a recent graduation ceremony. Last month, Bryant confirmed that authorities - it is not clear from what agency - seized the hard drives from the computers of the law school dean and his secretary.

Cunningham did not return calls made to his office and cell phone Thursday and Friday. Neither did law school dean Percy Luney Jr. or former FAMU president Frederick Humphries, who arranged Cunningham's gift.

The episode is the latest problem to hit the historically black school, which is struggling with financial troubles that recently prompted a universitywide audit designed to identify everyone who is receiving a FAMU paycheck.

The problems appear to extend beyond the law school.

The Florida Department of Financial Services is conducting a criminal investigation of the Institute for Urban Policy and Commerce on FAMU's Tallahassee campus, said DFS spokeswoman Tami Torres. Bryant recently halted all of the institute's work and dismissed its employees. She cited issues discovered during the payroll audit.

Bryant said Friday she has chosen a new executive director to continue the institute's work.

Torres said the DFS is conducting other investigations at FAMU, but would not say what departments or schools are being targeted.

Bryant, meanwhile, is dealing with a National Science Foundation review of FAMU grant spending. Foundation officials are threatening to end grants to the school if the problems are not resolved.

Bryant said Friday she plans to take a report on all of the issues, including the Cunningham gift, to the FAMU board of trustees this month. "The university is taking responsibility for itself," she said. "And we are committed to making decisions that are appropriate in a timely manner."

Cunningham's donation raises several questions that remain unanswered:

--Did the state know about his employment situation when it matched his donation?

--Who knew about the arrangement at the school? Who signed the payroll forms that included Cunningham?

--How will the IRS view the arrangement?

--Is it proper for a public university to give a donor a job in exchange for a donation?

Officials at several of Florida's other universities say they do not award jobs to donors in exchange for philanthropy. Otherwise, a patron could write a check to get his child into college.

"We would not accept a gift like that," said Judi Spann, a spokeswoman for the Florida State University Foundation.

Neither would the University of Florida, said Chris Brazda, a spokesman for the UF Foundation.

"We don't want to get in the business of letting the donor, as much as we appreciate their funds, dictate who is to receive the funds in terms of a professorship," Brazda said.

John Lippincott, president of the national Council for Advancement and Support of Education, said he would consider the arrangement as a contract, not a donation. He was speaking generally about the practice and didn't know the details of FAMU's situation. "We do not consider something a gift if in some way the donor is either getting a quid pro quo, or if the donor is maintaining a level of control over the gift," he said.

Bryant said she would not accept a gift like this, either.

"I have been in education 30 years," Bryant said, "and I have never seen anything like this."

In articles about the donation published in 2001, Cunningham credited former FAMU president Humphries with persuading him to donate to FAMU.

Cunningham, who did not attend FAMU, met Humphries when he was a student at historically black Tennessee State University. At the time, Humphries was president of the school.

The son of a sharecropper, Cunningham said Humphries persuaded him to go to law school. He became a successful trial attorney, handling cases against Ford, Bridgestone/Firestone and makers of the fen-phen diet drug. He serves on the board of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America, according to his law firm's Web site. He also ran unsuccessfully for the Kentucky Legislature.

"Fred Humphries basically molded my life," Cunningham told the Lexington Herald Leader in 2001. Humphries now works at FAMU in an office at the FAMU law school, which is in Orlando.

John Price, an accountant for Cunningham, wrote to Humphries about the gift on Oct. 11, 2001, according to a copy of the letter obtained by the Times.

Price wrote: "Mr. Cunningham anticipates a three year contract to the endowed chair and is looking forward to the opportunity to discuss with the applicable persons in your personnel department the employment agreement, including the salary and other fringe benefits available to the professors at your university."

For personal tax reasons, Cunningham wanted to fund his pledge in 2002, Price wrote.

Reached at his office Friday, Price declined comment.

It's possible the value of Cunningham's job at the law school could have affected how much money the state would have matched for his donation.

State officials could not answer that question Friday.

Policy guidelines for the university major gifts program do not address the issue.

Under law, the state will provide $750,000 to match a $1-million donation to a university. But the program awards a smaller percentage for gifts under $1-million.

If a gift is valued at $700,000, the state would match 70 percent, or $490,000. If a gift is valued at $500,000, the state matches 50 percent, or $250,000.

The Times reviewed documents provided to the Department of Education by FAMU to get its match. They make no mention that Cunningham would fill the chair he funded.

Instead, an agreement signed by Humphries and Cunningham says that FAMU will provide Cunningham annual financial statements showing how it used his donation.

--Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. David Karp can be reached toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 8430, or karp@sptimes.com