Crony culture imperils FAMU
By BILL MAXWELL
Published March 18, 2007
Castell Vaughn Bryant should be paid combat and hazardous duty pay.
When she became the interim president of historically black Florida A&M University in Tallahassee more than two years ago, she knowingly walked into a war zone. She inherited an institution mired in financial chaos and management dysfunction.
I have no doubt that the mess Bryant is trying to fix was left by former FAMU president Frederick Humphries' 16-year imperial reign, from 1985 to 2001, and the anemic four-year tenure of Fred Gainous, who followed Humphries in 2001.
Some of the tangible problems Bryant inherited include: theft in the financial aid office; adjunct professors not getting paid; state audits showing the university spent millions of dollars more than it had budgeted; and indecipherable bookkeeping.
After Bryant, the first woman to lead the school, took over in 2005, other problems with roots in the distant and recent past continued: An endowed chair at the law school was handed to a major donor; a staff member in the financial office was indicted for fraud; the National Science Foundation was ready to stop federal grants until the school agreed to return the funds in question; a criminal investigation showed gross irregularities at the Institute for Urban Policy and Commerce.
To her lasting credit, Bryant implemented a tough, no-nonsense approach to fix the problems, which drew calls for her ouster. Among her efforts, she closed the Institute for Urban Policy and Commerce and fired all 23 of its employees. She called for a spending freeze, hired outside professionals to examine the books, eliminated wasteful programs and fired "deadwood."
Today, because many old-timers are resisting change, major problems remain, most notably the 700 or so late paychecks to adjunct professors and other employees.
I listed some of the tangible problems at FAMU. The nitty-gritty, however, is that the tangible problems are the direct result of at least two major intangible subcultures: blind glorification of the institution and debilitating cronyism.
For generations, FAMU's presidents and senior administrators rewarded their friends and the friends of friends with plum positions of power. Anyone, even a lawmaker, criticizing Humphries was demonized. If you were white, you were accused of being a racist. If you were black, you were accused of being a sellout or an Uncle Tom.
As a result, the incestuous rot spread, creating the crises FAMU faces today.
The blind glorification and the cronyism surfaced in the antics surrounding the recent hiring of a permanent president, James H. Ammons, who will replace Bryant this summer. After Ammons was hired, Alvin Bryant, president of the FAMU National Alumni Association, e-mailed on March 1 an "action alert" addressed to "Dear FAMU Friends & Family."
Alvin Bryant (no relation to Castell Bryant) wrote: "We need your help! We need all Rattlers to spring into action and help us clean up our Board of Trustees. With the start of the 2007 Legislative session set to convene on Tuesday, March 6, we have a rare opportunity to voice our concerns to members of the Florida Senate and ask them not to approve the pending appointments of several current trustees who do not have the university's best interest at heart."
Alvin Bryant asked all FAMU alumni and supporters to telephone or write or e-mail specific elected officials, including Gov. Charlie Crist, asking them to reject the pending reappointments of Challis Lowe and Jesse Tyson and to ask for the resignations of Regina Benjamin, Laura Branker, W. George Allen and Leerie Jenkins.
Alvin Bryant wants these six trustees gone because they did not vote to hire Ammons. They believed that the other finalist, Thelma Thompson, was a better choice.
During a telephone interview, Castell Bryant told me that Alvin Bryant's e-mail manifests the culture of cronyism responsible for the university's dire straits.
"The seven who voted for Dr. Ammons believe that he will represent traditional FAMU points of view and culture, having served at the university as provost," Castell Bryant said. "By contrast, his opponent was viewed as an outsider. The campaign to oust the dissenting board members is calling for a rubber stamp board of trustees. ... Independent thinking and differing points of view greatly increase the likelihood of developing innovative plans for strengthening the university.
"We have entered a period in the United States when rubber stamp boards and friendly appointments are increasingly frowned on in both the business and nonprofit worlds. It is hard to believe, but some involved in this ... campaign contend that all board members should be from the Tallahassee area because they are closer to the university and know it best. The days when a university, such as Florida A&M, can expect to achieve its goals by simply whispering in someone's ear are long gone."
Castell Bryant has identified the major source of FAMU's serious problems.
"My view is that the greatest threat to FAMU's future would be its failure to change," she said. "There is a great heritage and enormous devotion to the school from thousands of people. But my more than two years as interim president convince me that the changes we have started are only a beginning. The board members who are under attack agree."