Senate panel decries latest FAMU trouble

Lawmakers warn administrators problems must be fixed or else.

Published March 16, 2007

TALLAHASSEE - Increasingly frustrated with the financial problems at Florida's only historically black public university, senators who oversee college budget requests warned Florida A&M University administrators Thursday that they aren't afraid to make cuts if FAMU doesn't clean up.

"It has to be corrected," said Sen. Jim King, who sits on the Senate's higher education appropriations committee. "It is time, in my opinion, to do something really significant. If that means removing some things, so be it. But we need to get control of this to get FAMU back to where it needs to be."

Echoed committee chairwoman Sen. Evelyn Lynn, R-Daytona Beach: "When we start appropriating money, we have to know that the policies in place are being enforced. While we don't want to be cruel, we also have to be responsible fiscally."

Their comments were the harshest public comments yet about FAMU, an institution plagued in recent years with leadership turnover, money mismanagement, declining student enrollment, and poor retention and graduation rates.

FAMU's latest financial woes involve a payroll scandal in which instructors last month submitted hundreds of requests for checks they claim were weeks - and in some cases, months - overdue.

There were 632 paycheck requests from graduate assistants, adjunct instructors and full-time faculty who taught classes outside those negotiated in their contracts.

Some people submitted more than one claim, depending on how many classes they taught.

Castell Bryant, interim president, said she first learned of the problem Feb. 2. She stressed that she moved quickly to pay instructors who had paperwork verifying they actually taught those classes.

Thursday, she told senators that FAMU has distributed more than $635,000, fulfilling all but seven of the requests. She is still awaiting paperwork for those cases, and said that if she doesn't get it by the end of today, they will not be paid.

The payroll scandal is the latest in a string of embarrassing problems that date back to the tenure of longtime president Frederick Humphries, who resigned in 2001 after 16 years.

There were previous payroll problems: In 1997, a number of adjunct professors weren't paid for several weeks because FAMU overspent its adjunct faculty budget by half a million dollars.

Federal authorities in 2000 charged a financial aid officer with soliciting and accepting bribes from students in exchange for submitting false financial aid records. The following year, FAMU's longtime education dean was charged with stealing more than $50,000.

Those problems and the current one represent a dramatic fall from 1997, when Time magazine and the Princeton Review named FAMU the nation's college of the year - thanks in part to a business school that was nationally lauded.

"It defies me that an academic institution that at times has been so renowned, particularly in business and accounting, has these problems," said King, R-Jacksonville. Bryant said she isn't surprised that lawmakers considering FAMU's budget - about $397-million this year including contracts and grants - spoke so harshly. "They're absolutely right," Bryant said. "They're the stewards of the money for the people of the state of Florida."

Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler can be reached at 850 224-7263 or svansickler@sptimes.com