FAMU's savior fell from grace
By RON MATUS
Published March 28, 2007
Twenty-eight months ago, with Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University reeling from financial turmoil, its board of trustees turned to a feisty, outspoken alumna to be the school's interim president.
Castell Bryant swept in like a tsunami.
Within months, she had fired a half-dozen top administrators, canned more than 20 other staffers and, in an effort to reduce payroll fraud, ordered employees to wait in line, in the rain, to sign for their checks. She compared herself to Annie Oakley. She won kudos from then-Gov. Jeb Bush.
Many FAMU supporters, eager to rally around a savior, saw the hard-charging Bryant, now 69, as a breath of fresh air.
But in the wake of yet another blistering state audit, even some of her former supporters are wondering how the air turned so stale again.
Last week, the Florida Board of Governors formed a task force to examine FAMU spending - an unprecedented intervention critics see as proof of Bryant's mismanagement. Meanwhile, state lawmakers wondered aloud about more drastic measures, including a possible criminal investigation.
"If she were the permanent president, they'd be looking for a way to fire her," said Bill Tucker, a former FAMU physics professor and faculty union leader who said he encouraged Bryant to go for the interim job in late 2004.
Under Bryant, "things got bigger, things got worse."
Bryant's term ends this summer, but her story is an important chapter in the bigger tale about ongoing troubles at Florida's only historically black public university.
Was Bryant in over her head? Was she undermined by rampant factionalism? Or were the problems so big no president could corral them in two years?
"When you're talking about culture change, you're talking not just about implementing new procedures, you're talking about changing people," Bryant said Tuesday. "And people don't change quickly."
"Should I have made some progress? Absolutely," Bryant continued. "Should I have been able to solve all the problems? No."
Bryant's support faded
The questions aren't just academic.
Bryant, a former president of Miami-Dade College's north campus, will be replaced by James Ammons, a former FAMU provost whom trustees picked in February.
Supporters want Ammons, now chancellor of North Carolina Central University, to restore FAMU to its former glory. But the recent audit suggests that instead of hitting the ground running, he'll have to tackle festering problems that proved too elusive - or too complicated - for Bryant.
Last week, Bryant told a Senate education committee that had she known how bad it was two years ago, "I would not be standing before you today."
"Most of those things have been going on well before she got there," agreed FAMU trustee George Allen. "She couldn't fire everybody. She had to run a school."
Allen said Bryant righted an athletic department rocked by NCAA sanctions, exorcised ghost employees from the payroll and restored the university's standing with the National Science Foundation. Along the way, he said, she rightly had to "step on some toes."
"Tallahassee is a small town," Allen said. "Many people in the black community are involved with FAMU, either directly or indirectly. You can't make everybody happy."
But critics say her abrasive style poured gas on the fire. For every supporter who says, "Give 'em hell, Castell," there's a critic who likens her to a bull in a china shop.
Last May, her administration fired eight nontenured business professors as part of a plan to get the business school accredited. Supporters of the SBI Eight - as the fired professors came to be called, after the School of Business and Industry - said the professors were not given an explanation beforehand or an opportunity to beef up their academic credentials to meet accreditation requirements.
"We were sent a letter and told we had five days to pack up and get out," said former professor Booker Daniels, a FAMU graduate and retired IBM executive. "The experience level ranged from six years to 16 years, and we were given a five-day notice to vacate."
Tucker, the former faculty union leader, said his support for Bryant began to evaporate in the summer of 2005, when she selected a new provost - the university's chief academic officer - without faculty input. Since then, Bryant's support among faculty has slipped so much that in a union-backed survey last fall, 82 percent said she failed to build consensus and promote shared governance.
"She doesn't trust anyone, not even her own folks," Tucker said. "I think she's got a siege mentality that's taken over."
Two years to change
FAMU's most recent woes may have stained Bryant the most.
Two years ago, lawmakers offered to hire five accountants to help FAMU, but Bryant tersely declined. "If I feel we need the help," she said, "I will ask for it." Six months later, she produced a financial statement by a university-hired firm that showed an $8-million surplus. Lawmakers gave her a round of applause. Trustees gave her a $50,000 raise, to $300,000 a year.
The perception: FAMU had turned the corner.
Then, a few weeks ago, the double whammy.
First, Bryant received more than 600 requests for overdue paychecks from adjunct professors and full-time faculty teaching extra classes. Then the preliminary state audit found 35 problems with accounting and finances, including missing computers, poor oversight of employee cell phones and campus vehicles, and ticket-sale records that were "inadvertently discarded."
"We thought Bryant was getting it right, and we're just always shocked that things still keep coming out of the walls," said Donald Rutledge, a former Bryant supporter, who heads the Clearwater chapter of the FAMU Alumni Association. "It doesn't appear that in two years, she's had a good handle on that situation."
Were two years enough?
"I can't answer that," said trustees chairwoman Challis Lowe, who has defended Bryant vigorously. But "I know more about the depth and breadth of the problems than I did 28 months ago ... and part of the reason I know more is (Bryant) has been ruthless in terms of surfacing problems."
"We got a lot done. But we could not get it all done," Bryant said. "But by the same token, nobody could have gotten it done in two years."
The only way to have fixed everything, immediately, was to do a "total, total clean sweep," she continued. But doing so would have disrupted the school's core academic mission.
"It would have been too much chaos," she said. "You had more than 10,000 students there depending on the institution."
Bryant said she knew from the outset that she wouldn't be as popular by the end of her term.
Asked if she has done a good job, FAMU instructor and Leon County Commissioner Bill Proctor wouldn't answer directly, even though he spoke glowingly of Bryant two years ago. "I don't think she came in here and was a slacker," said Proctor, whose district includes FAMU.
"I think she gave us her best."
Times staff writer Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler contributed to this report. Ron Matus can be reached email@example.com or (727) 893-8873. Comments can be posted on the Times education blog, the Gradebook, at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.
Family: Currently single, two grown children
Education: Bachelor's degree, library science, FAMU; master's degree, administration of adult-education programs, FAMU; Ph.D., administration of vocational/adult-education programs, Nova Southeastern
Current position: Interim president, FAMU
Past positions: President, Miami-Dade College medical center campus; president, Miami-Dade College north campus; member, Florida Board of Governors; member, FAMU board of trustees; interim head, Florida Memorial College