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FAMU turns away 1,000 students for not paying

Denying them re-enrollment was tough but necessary, the school's interim president says.

By SHANNON COLAVECCHIO-VAN SICKLER
Published September 21, 2006


ST. PETERSBURG - More than 1,000 Florida A&M University students were turned away this fall for failing to pay their tuition and fees - a long-standing problem that added $5-million in student debt to the historically black college.

It wasn't an easy or popular decision to deny re-enrollment to the students, some of them seniors who had not paid for several semesters, interim FAMU president Castell Bryant told the Times editorial board Wednesday.

Bryant said she did it as part of her ongoing efforts to clean up years of financial mismanagement, lax bookkeeping and other institutional woes before a permanent president is hired next year.

"Regretfully, this has been common practice for years, and these debts were very, very high," she said.

Bryant, a FAMU graduate, has made a lot of tough decisions since becoming the Tallahassee institution's interim leader nearly two years ago. She was hired in January 2005 to deal with problems dating back to the tenure of longtime president Frederick Humphries, who retired in 2001.

The federal government said FAMU, the only historically black public university in Florida, 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 came in and cut sports programs and scholarships, trimmed spending universitywide and fired or reassigned dozens of employees. Even the football coach got axed.

She made no apologies Wednesday and said she doesn't care what her detractors think.

"What we're doing is what needs to be done," she said. "I am committed to the survival of this university."

She and other administrators concede that problems remain.

Enrollment is flat this fall at nearly 12,000 students, after a 7 percent drop last year.

FAMU's $40-million law school has been without a dean since June 2005, and the students' bar passage rate of less than 60 percent is the lowest among public law schools in Florida.

Bryant said the unpaid student tuition bills are proof that financial problems persist. She said she won't feel she has done her job until FAMU's financial management is sound.

A state audit of FAMU's 2004-05 finances was mixed. Auditors found that millions in grants could not be verified and expense transactions weren't properly recorded. Cashiers didn't properly deposit or record collections.

But the audit also found a nearly $3-million surplus, a turnaround from past deficits. Bryant expects improvements in the next audit, which will cover the majority of her interim tenure.

There are other bright spots, too, she said.

A third finalist for the law school deanship is being interviewed this week, and the school expects to have someone in place by early next summer.

Debra Austin, vice president for academic affairs, said more seasoned faculty members are being hired, and the new dean will be expected to raise the bar passage rate significantly.

"The past rates have been totally unacceptable," Austin said.

Black Enterprise magazine recently named FAMU the No. 1 university in the country for African-American students, over No. 2 Howard University and No. 4 Harvard.

And even though overall enrollment is flat this year, the number of freshmen, juniors and seniors is up - a development Bryant attributes to FAMU's focused retention and recruiting efforts.

FAMU now has six recruitment directors assigned to different regions of Florida, and college deans play a role in recruiting freshmen for key academic programs and high-demand job areas. Officials also are aggressively going after community college students ready to transfer and finish their four-year degrees, a first for FAMU, Bryant said.

Keith Jackson, the school's vice president for research, said FAMU is generating record amounts of government money for research in areas such as prostate cancer and Parkinson's disease treatment.

FAMU pulled in $54.3-million for the budget year that recently ended, ranking it No. 4 among historically black colleges, Jackson said.

As for Bryant, her contract runs through December 2007.

A presidential search firm is expected to bring candidates to the board of trustees at the beginning of next year, and the trustees plan to choose someone in March.

By then, Bryant hopes to have smoothed a path for her successor.

"We are moving forward," she said. "The things we are doing now are going to make it so much easier for the new president."

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