Bitter rifts plague FAMU
By RON MATUS
Published March 29, 2007
Bitter factional fights at Florida A&M University have been playing out behind the scenes for years. But now, one particularly ugly rift is headed for a legislative spotlight.
Critics of Challis Lowe, chairwoman of the FAMU board of trustees, want state senators to deny her appointment next month to another five-year term. They're led by the university's powerful alumni association, which has criticized Lowe, 61, for supporting embattled interim president Castell Bryant, and for being on the losing end of a 7-6 vote to make former FAMU provost James Ammons the new, permanent president.
State legislators, increasingly wary with what they see as a lack of progress at FAMU, are likely to use the dispute to probe broader problems - and perhaps intervene.
"This is going to be a definite review and some scrutiny," said Sen. Steve Oelrich, R-Gainesville, who chairs the Senate Higher Education Committee. "We're going to take action and ... there's going to have to be some real hard decisions."
As for Lowe specifically, Oelrich said, "All I'm prepared to say is we're going to have the right team in place."
Divisions at Florida's only historically black public university have become starker in recent years, given a leadership vacuum, bookkeeping blunders and waves of negative headlines.
The latest jolt: a preliminary state audit that listed 35 problems, including failures to pay employees on time, properly perform their annual evaluations and document leave time and sabbaticals. Released two weeks ago, the audit prompted lawmakers to threaten a criminal investigation and led the Board of Governors, which oversees state universities, to form a task force to watchdog FAMU spending.
Problems run deep
Critics blame the current administration, headed by Bryant, who was appointed in December 2004, and by Lowe, who became chairwoman two months later. But if lawmakers truly want to get to the bottom of it, they'll have to wade through thickets of infighting and finger-pointing, and hang up more of FAMU's dirty laundry in the process.
"There are enough core issues that we need to deal with ... that result in negative press, that we don't have to create negative press around noncore issues," Lowe said.
A few weeks after the Ammons vote in February, the president of the alumni association called on members to lobby lawmakers and Gov. Charlie Crist to get rid of Lowe, and to push for the resignation of other members who did not vote for Ammons.
"In order for FAMU to move forward, we are going to need accomplished and engaged board members that will be supportive of FAMU," alumni head Alvin Bryant wrote in a widely circulated letter.
FAMU alumni have allies in high places, including Barney Bishop, a former trustee who heads the powerful Associated Industries of Florida. Bishop, who clashed frequently with Bryant said this week he has already talked to Oelrich, and plans to speak to other committee members.
"If FAMU wants to continue to exist, and all of us want that to happen, they have to be transparent and accountable," Bishop said. "That hasn't been the case with Castell Bryant. And it certainly hasn't been the case with Challis Lowe."
Lowe, though, continues to enjoy support from Board of Governors Chairwoman Carolyn Roberts.
"She's done a very good job under difficult circumstances," Roberts said. "Our board has confidence in her."
Bryant and Lowe have countered that the problems ran too deep for any administration to uproot all of them in two years. Bryant will be leaving when Ammons assumes the presidency in July, but Lowe, who was appointed by the Board of Governors, wants another term.
"I'm not trying to win a popularity contest here," Lowe, 61, said in a phone interview from Nashville, Tenn., where she is an executive vice president at Dollar General. "I'm trying to do what's right with the university."
Lowe said she won't resign.
"If I'm called by the committee to defend my record, I'll do that," she said. "There's certainly no reason by virtue of anything they can look at in terms of ethics, in terms of the way I've done my job as a trustee, that would warrant my not being confirmed."
Lowe encouraged the St. Petersburg Times to talk to other trustees about her performance.
"I've had a very positive relationship with the chair," said trustee R.B. Holmes, a Tallahassee minister who voted for Ammons. But asked whether Lowe has done a good job, Holmes would only repeat, "I've had a very positive relationship with the chair."
Holmes said it would not be "appropriate" to comment on whether Lowe should be confirmed for another term.
In a related development, the Senate Higher Education Appropriations Committee agreed on a proposed budget Wednesday that takes $100,000 from FAMU's Institute of Human and Machine Cognition and sets it aside to help fix the tens of millions of dollars in financial management problems at FAMU that were recently uncovered in the state audit.
State university system chancellor Mark Rosenberg said the money will help pay for improvements and changes likely to be recommended by the task force looking into FAMU finances.
"We're going to have to bring in some specialists to work with FAMU," Rosenberg said. "It's a matter of fixing the difficulties, the structural operational issues. We do need some resources to do that."
Ron Matus can be reached at 727 893-8873 or firstname.lastname@example.org Times staff writer Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler and researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report. Comments can be posted on the Times education blog, the Gradebook, at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.