Business school tries to regain glory

The recent firings of eight faculty members highlight the FAMU school's fall in stature since the retirement of dean Sybil Mobley.

Published July 16, 2006

TALLAHASSEE - The business school at Florida A&M University sits atop this city's highest hill, and for years its performance matched its perch.

The School of Business and Industry lured some of the nation's brightest black students and graduated them into high-paying jobs with Fortune 500 companies. Fortune magazine and the New York Times took note. Comedian Bill Cosby donated $100,000 to the school. Major corporations did the same.

The school acted as its own little college within FAMU, the state's only historically black public university. Even as the university around them struggled in recent years with finances and personnel, students and faculty members figured the business school would remain a success.

Then came the firings last month of eight faculty members - part of a controversial overhaul of the professional development program that had brought the business school corporate praise.

FAMU officials say the school's emphasis on professional development - and its use of faculty members lacking doctorates and other academic experience - have prevented it from securing accreditation.

Accreditation isn't mandatory for business schools, but it's a sort of seal of approval that potential students and corporate recruiters look for.

By finally securing accreditation, administrators have hoped to raise the business school's stature and enrollment, which have slumped following the retirement of the school's founding dean and driving force, Sybil Mobley.

FAMU has since put the instructors back on the payroll pending a review of their collective bargaining rights. But the terminations and curriculum changes, coming three years after Mobley's retirement, have many worried about the business school's future.

They see in the school a reflection of the broader problems plaguing FAMU: Lack of a permanent leader, dropping student enrollment, low morale.

"We have always been a little insulated in the business school," said Nicki Nelson, an Atlanta lawyer who graduated in 2001 with a master's in business administration. "I had heard about some of the problems at FAMU overall, but I frankly wasn't worried until I heard that there were these problems in SBI.

"When Dr. Mobley left, we knew it was going to be hard, but we didn't know it was going to fall apart like this."

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Mobley retired in June 2003, nearly four decades after she started teaching accounting at FAMU. She was the first and only dean of the business school.

Mobley still lives in Tallahassee, but she could not be reached for comment.

FAMU officials still haven't found her permanent replacement. In the years since Mobley left, enrollment has dropped from more than 1,800 to fewer than 1,300.

"When our longtime dean left, we kind of started what I call diminishing returns," said associate professor Booker T. Daniels, one of the eight to get a termination letter. "We started slipping."

It echoes a campuswide problem. Without a permanent president for the past year and a half, and faced with a number of financial management and personnel problems, FAMU has low morale and decreased student enrollment.

Recent business school graduate Brandon Handy, 25, served on the business school's dean search committee. The business school is "not what it used to be," he said. "And it cannot get to that higher plane without a leader."

FAMU interim president Castell Bryant said she hopes to name a new dean this summer. But students, faculty members and alumni wonder where their next leader will take the school, and how far that path will diverge from Mobley's.

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Mobley made sure SBI, as students and faculty members call the business school, was different from others.

Accrediting organizations frowned on the lack of a traditional academic model and the use of instructors from corporate America. But students and many recruiters liked it that way.

Mobley sat on companies' boards and hired longtime executives to teach her students the ins and outs of corporate culture.

FAMU's school, through its professional development program, emphasized public speaking, employee management, interview techniques and other "soft skills" as much as - sometimes more than - academic achievement.

Students acted as employees and supervisors for nearly two dozen "companies," preparing budgets and presentations and overseeing reorganizations.

"That's how I gained most of my management skills," Nelson said.

Students practiced public speaking in a television studio. They learned about managing people and being team players.

They came to class dressed in corporate attire, and they met with chief executives who regularly visited campus. Mobley required all students to speak a second language. Before graduating, they completed three internships, including one overseas.

Experience, experience, experience, Mobley demanded.

"We wanted to produce business leaders," Mobley, now 80, told the Tallahassee Democrat when she retired.

Fortune 500 companies recruited heavily at the school. They donated lots of money. Outside the business school, a large wall lists dozens of Fortune 500 companies that donated $100,000 or more: 3M, IBM, Ford, Bristol-Myers, General Motors.

"Corporate America loves FAMU kids, and it's not because they're black," said former Xerox executive Bernard Kinsey, past president of the FAMU National Alumni Association. "It's because they're better prepared than anyone."

FAMU's school has never been accredited, but it thrived without it under Mobley because her name and connections carried great influence, said Patrick Liverpool, interim dean of the school since January.

"But she is not here anymore," he said. "Not being accredited places us at a competitive disadvantage in recruiting and keeping corporate sponsors."

SBI's enrollment was nearly 1,900 students in fall 2001. It started dropping after Mobley left, to 1,305 in fall 2005 and 1,272 in spring of 2006 - a "precipitous decline," Liverpool said.

"The pipeline is drying up," Liverpool said. "I consider it a concern of crisis proportions."

The recent firings of the eight professional development faculty members are part of a plan to "more efficiently" operate the professional development program so that it meets accreditation standards, Liverpool told FAMU's board of trustees last month.

FAMU provost Debra Austin said the eight lack the necessary academic and professional qualifications.

But Clyde Ashley, a tenured SBI associate professor who teaches professional development, said the terminated faculty members have many years of professional experience working for the likes of AT&T and GM. Moreover, they were taking courses and presenting academic papers to meet academic standards, he said.

Liverpool insists professional development isn't going away. But if the professors' terminations are upheld, that leaves just two tenured faculty members and a director in the program.

In the minds of some students and alumni, that pretty much kills the program that Mobley pursued for more than three decades.

"The business school has been a stellar contributor to FAMU's reputation, and it's because of the professional development program," said Kinsey.

"If you take that out, it changes the whole thing."

Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report. Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler can be reached at 813 226-3403 or svansickler@sptimes.com.