FAMU picks alumnus to lead it

Since 2001, he has helped N.C. Central rebound.

Published February 2, 2007

After a two-year search for a new president to lead their struggling institution, Florida A&M University trustees decided Thursday to go with a familiar face.

In a tight vote, the board named former FAMU provost James H. Ammons to the top position at the state's only historically black public university.

Ammons was backed by seven trustees, one more than University of Maryland Eastern Shore president Thelma B. Thompson. University of North Texas provost Howard C. Johnson was the other finalist.

"I know firsthand the power of this university, and no one has a deeper commitment to its growth and prosperity," Ammons said after the vote.

Ammons, who has led North Carolina Central University in Durham, N.C., since he left FAMU in 2001, does not have a start date. But the board that oversees Florida's universities is expected to confirm him soon.

Business professor Clyde Ashley, who met with all three candidates during their campus visits two weeks ago, expects Ammons to return to his alma mater once the current semester ends.

"We had three qualified candidates, and the best candidate was selected," said Ashley, a professor at FAMU for 28 years. "We're at a crossroads, and we need a president who can hit the ground running. Dr. Ammons can do that."

Trustees, state university system leaders and faculty members are hoping the selection of Ammons, a FAMU alumnus who grew up in Central Florida, marks a turning point for the school.

"It does encourage me," said Carolyn Roberts, chairwoman of the Board of Governors, which oversees Florida's 11 public universities. "I know the alumni are excited. They have a vision for their school, and they believe he shares it."

FAMU has been without a permanent leader for two years. But its financial troubles began long before that, under the longtime presidency of Frederick Humphries and his successor Fred Gainous, who was fired in 2004 after just two years.

The problems included sloppy business practices that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, questionable and unapproved expenses and a dysfunctional financial aid system.

In January 2005, trustees made Castell Bryant interim president and told her to fix the mess.

The FAMU alumnus arrived to multimillion-dollar budget deficits. The federal government said the university wasn't complying with financial aid regulations. FAMU had to return a $1.5-million grant from the National Science Foundation 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. She also fired eight nontenured professors from the nationally recognized business school.

"I had no idea of the severity of these problems when I came to this institution," said Bryant, who said she had no interest in the permanent job.

FAMU's board of trustees paid $141,000 to a Chicago-based search firm to find a new president by this summer. Many on the campus think FAMU went too long without a permanent leader, especially considering it faces re-accreditation next year.

That sense of urgency prompted the board to name a president now rather than wait until March, as originally planned.

Thursday's meeting was the first in which all three finalists went before the full board of trustees in a public session.

Ashley said Ammons emerged from Thursday's interview and from his recent campus visit as the most "presidential" candidate, with the kind of experience needed to help FAMU move forward.

During his campus meetings, Ammons recounted how he arrived at North Carolina Central to find falling enrollment, questionable audits and a declining reputation - all problems now facing FAMU.

But the university rebounded under his watch, bringing in large donations and growing enrollment from less than 6,000 to more than 8,600.

He said he wanted to return to FAMU because he felt indebted to it.

"It literally took me from poverty to prosperity," he said.

Bryant, meanwhile, is ready for a break after two difficult years.

While at a Board of Governors meeting in Boca Raton last week, Bryant talked about fixing the landscaping and making other improvements to her Miami home.

"I am ready to go home," she said with a smile. "So ready!"

Information from the Tallahassee Democrat was used in this report. Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler can be reached at 813 226-3403 or svansickler@sptimes.com.

The new president

James H. Ammons

Current post: Chancellor, North Carolina Central University in Durham, N.C.

Education: Bachelor's degree in political science, 1974, FAMU; master's degree in public administration, 1975; Ph.D. in government, 1977, Florida State University.

Personal: Native of Winter Haven.

Professional: Assistant professor of public policy and administration, University of Central Florida, 1977-83. Returned in 1984 to FAMU, where he served as a professor, associate vice president for academic affairs, assistant vice president for academic affairs and ultimately provost. Served as faculty program consultant for the state university system. American Council on Education fellow, FSU. He left FAMU in 2001 for the North Carolina job.