Black caucus vows to protect FAMU

It wants to make sure the school gets needed funding.

Published March 22, 2007

TALLAHASSEE - Members of the Legislature's black caucus, many of them Florida A&M University graduates, vowed Wednesday to protect their troubled alma mater from budget cuts or any other action that could lead to FAMU's "demise."

They said they will closely monitor the work of a task force of state university system experts being formed to examine and fix the messy financial operations of Florida's only historically black public university.

"Any talk, any talk, of the demise of Florida A&M University is to cease and desist at this moment," Tallahassee Rep. Curtis Richardson said during the lunchtime celebration of FAMU Day at the Capitol.

FAMU, founded in 1887, is a leading producer of degrees for black students - particularly in pharmacy and business. More than 1,500 will graduate this spring.

Its marching band, which played outside the Capitol Wednesday, recently played with Prince at the Super Bowl.

But the school is under fire over a recent operational audit by the state auditor general that uncovered tens of millions of dollars in unapproved expenses, missing equipment, unbalanced books and payroll problems.

The problems, which have plagued FAMU for several years, so alarm some lawmakers, they warned in recent weeks that the state holds the purse strings for FAMU - and could dramatically tighten them.

This week, state university system chancellor Mark Rosenberg revealed the worst-case scenario for FAMU would be for the Legislature "not to fund it. And without that funding, the university would cease to exist."

Sen. Tony Hill, chairman of the black caucus, said five caucus members, including Richardson and Sen. Al Lawson, will "serve alongside" the task force to monitor its work and "be our eyes and ears on behalf of the caucus" as it tries to secure the funding FAMU needs.

If the questionable finances are the result of criminal activity, as some lawmakers suspect, "those people will have to suffer the consequences," Richardson said.

But it's not right to cut funding from an institution that at one time was the only option for black Florida students seeking a college education, caucus members said.

Lawson said he sees "a bright future" for FAMU, which has suffered inconsistent leadership ever since the 2001 retirement of longtime president Frederick Humphries.

Humphries oversaw a period of great success for FAMU, including increased enrollment and a recognition by Time magazine as College of the Year.

But financial problems began surfacing under his watch, and university system leaders from that time later admitted they let FAMU get away with more for fear of being labeled racist.

James Ammons, provost under Humphries, has been named FAMU's first permanent president in more than two years. He starts this summer, and black caucus members are hopeful.

"FAMU yesterday!" caucus members cheered. "FAMU today! FAMU forever!"

Staff writer Rebecca Catalanello contributed. Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler can be reached at 850 224-7263 or svansickler@sptimes.com.