FAMU hires search firm to seek new president

With re-accreditation on the horizon, trustees want to speed up the process to find a permanent university leader.

Published June 30, 2006

TALLAHASSEE - Florida A&M University has struggled without a permanent leader for 18 months and may not get one for another year, leaving interim president Castell Bryant to steer the institution through a difficult re-accreditation process.

FAMU's board of trustees Thursday agreed to pay $141,000 to Chicago-based search firm The Hollins Group Inc. to find a new president by August 2007. Critics say the deadline is too late, given the problems plaguing the state's only historically black public university.

"We want this done by the end of this year," said FAMU National Alumni Association president Dr. Alvin Bryant, no relation to interim president Bryant. "This has taken long enough."

Trustees chose Castell Bryant as interim president in January 2005, entrusting the alumnus and former trustee to fix the university's tangle of financial, personnel and leadership woes. Bryant agreed to stay through the end of 2007 or until trustees hire a permanent president.

But the length of the search frustrates some within the FAMU community, who believe the university's bid for re-accreditation in 2008 may hinge on leadership. Recent firings and other administrative actions by Bryant have only aggravated their impatience.

This month, Bryant placed the university's auditor general on paid administrative leave, ordering him to stay away from personnel and FAMU offices. She also fired eight non-tenured professors from the nationally recognized business school, one of whom served for 17 years.

Some observers, including Dr. Alvin Bryant and trustee the Rev. R.B. Holmes, said the interim president overstepped her duties.

Trustees chairwoman Challis Lowe defended Bryant's actions.

"We can't afford a caretaker in the president's office," Lowe said. "We need a dragon slayer, someone who will prepare the way for the permanent president."

Bryant arrived to multimillion-dollar budget deficits, in the wake of financial scandals. The federal government said the university wasn't complying with financial aid regulations. FAMU had to return a $1.5-million National Science Foundation grant because it couldn't account for the money. The NCAA found 200 violations, and the football team had to forfeit titles.

Bryant cut sports programs and scholarships, trimmed spending universitywide and fired more than three dozen employees, including the head football coach.

"I had no idea of the severity of these problems when I came to this institution," Bryant said Thursday.

She did not apologize for her iron fist.

"Change is never easy, and it's particularly difficult when so much pride and history is involved."

As proof of her success, Bryant points to the draft state audit released this week. She said it shows the school's $397.5-million budget for 2004-2005 ended with a $2.7-million surplus. But the audit also found bookkeeping and financial management problems. FAMU administrators are working on a response.

"The audit makes clear we still have issues," said trustee Lowe.

Bryant earlier this month put FAMU's interim inspector general on paid administrative leave. A university's inspector general acts as an internal financial watchdog, with access to all records, students and staff.

Michael E. Brown maintained in a June 16 letter to Trustee Pamela Duncan that before his ousting, he was working with his staff "on an investigation of very serious allegations involving senior administration officials."

Brown's forced leave follows the firing of eight professors, two with Ph.D.s, from the business school, which has been without a permanent dean since 2003. The professors were not tenured, and Lowe said they were not academically qualified.

"We can't compete by being as good as we were. We have to raise the standards," Lowe said.

Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler can be reached at 813 226-3403 or svansickler@sptimes.com.