Hopeful, forceful note for FAMU

The board ratifies the selection of an alumnus to lead the school amid discord.

Published March 30, 2007

GAINESVILLE - Florida A&M University's persistent financial and accounting problems must be tackled "head on" so the school can again reach new heights in academics, its new president-elect said Thursday.

"Our stakeholders expect greater accountability," said James Ammons, a former FAMU provost who is currently chancellor of North Carolina Central University. "I am confident we can fix the problems ... and turn to our core business of educating students."

Ammons' comments came moments after the Board of Governors ratified him to be FAMU's 10th president, and a few hours after a key board member issued the most dire assessment yet of FAMU's plight.

Florida's only historically black public university is "headed toward, if not in, what I would characterize as the midst of a perfect storm," said Lynn Pappas, who chairs the task force the board formed last week to watch FAMU's finances.

Ammons, 54, faces arguably the biggest crisis in the school's 120-year history when he takes the helm in July. Only a few years ago, the Tallahassee school was outpacing Harvard in enrolling the nation's top black students and earning Time magazine's distinction as College of the Year. It's still the nation's No. 1 producer of bachelor's degrees for black students.

But it also continues to reel from financial woes that flared again this month in a scathing state audit, prompting the Board of Governors, which oversees state universities, to take the unprecedented step of forming the task force.

Ammons also will inherit a deeply factionalized campus; lawmakers angry enough to threaten a criminal investigation; and a board of trustees so divided it split 7-6 on the decision to hire him last month. Pappas said Thursday that if the problems continue, they could compromise FAMU's bonding status and jeopardize its accreditation.

"It's painful," said Ammons, a FAMU alumnus who worked as a top administrator at the university for years before taking the head job at North Carolina Central. But "that's why it wasn't a tough decision for me ... to come back and lend a hand."

Despite the trustees' close vote, there is high hope, even among those who did not vote for Ammons, that the Winter Haven native will be the one to finally restore FAMU to its former glory.

"We're ready to work with him to make sure that FAMU prospers," said trustee George Allen, who voted for another candidate.

"I believe he can be the experienced and unifying force we need," said trustees chairwoman Challis Lowe.

Wearing a charcoal-gray suit and with his wife, Judy, seated nearby, Ammons spoke slowly and confidently in his Florida drawl.

"This represents a high-water mark in my professional and educational life," he said, smiling. "I can truly say today that there is no place like home."

But Ammons' remarks quickly turned serious.

"We will assess the crucial issues and find strategies and solutions that will work," he said. "Fiscal integrity and accountability will be my highest priorities. This is a very important concern that must be addressed head on."

Sloppy business practices and a dysfunctional financial aid system at FAMU have roots in the longtime presidency of Frederick Humphries and his successor, Fred Gainous, who was fired in 2004. FAMU supporters hoped interim president Castell Bryant could right things enough so a new, permanent president could hit the ground running. But the recent audit shows problems still fester while the new task force suggests lawmakers and higher education officials have lost patience.

Some FAMU supporters see the intervention as a low point for the 12,000-student campus. But Board of Governors Chairwoman Carolyn Roberts said it will take pressure off Ammons so he can focus on issues such as academics and fundraising.

"To deal with all of this ... would be very difficult for a new president," she said.

In remarks to reporters, Ammons said the task force was warranted. He also said he would not point fingers. Some trustees said they did not vote for Ammons because they feared he was too much of an establishment figure at FAMU to make the necessary changes. Ammons served under Humphries.

"I am not going to play the blame game," he said. "I'm going to identify strategies and approaches to get FAMU in the direction we want it to go."

Ammons' track record at North Carolina Central is widely considered stellar. In five years, he boosted enrollment 50 percent, spurred biotechnology research and deftly dealt with everything from a mold outbreak in new dorms to a national story that exploded when a North Carolina Central student accused Duke University lacrosse players of raping her.

Perhaps more important to FAMU, Ammons helped lead North Carolina Central to its first clean state audit in two decades.

"He's shown what his leadership can make happen," said Barney Bishop, a former FAMU trustee who is sharply critical of the current administration. "If he's given the free rein he needs, he has the tools and the brains to make it happen."

"I know what it is to see and experience fiscal integrity," Ammons told the board.

In a related development, Roberts urged other board members to support Lowe. Since her vote for another presidential candidate last month, Lowe has come under fire from FAMU alumni, who hope to persuade the state Senate to deny her appointment to a second term.

"I hope all of you in this room will help us move her through that process," Roberts said.

Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report. Ron Matus can be reached at (727) 893-8873.

Fast Facts:


James Ammons

Age: 54.

Hometown: Winter Haven.

Family: Wife Judy, one son, James Ammons III, 27.

Education: bachelor's degree, political science, Florida A&M, (1974); master's degree, public administration, Florida State University (1975); Ph.D., government, FSU (1977).

Administrative experience includes: chancellor for North Carolina Central University (2001-present); various administrative posts at FAMU (1984-2001), including provost and vice president for academic affairs.

Professional activities include: board of directors, American Association of State Colleges and Universities; board of directors, American Association of Colleges of Teacher Education.