Leader turned college around
Now FAMU hopes its new president can do the same for his troubled alma mater.
By RON MATUS
Published April 8, 2007
DURHAM, N.C. - The audit was searing, filled with terms like "significant deficiencies" and "missing documentation." It implied some employees at North Carolina Central University were running schemes to line their own pockets.
James Ammons' first thought: "embarrassing."
Embarrassing because Ammons was the university's new chancellor, and even though the problems happened before his watch, they were his responsibility now. Embarrassing because Ammons knew this wasn't NCCU's first bad audit; in fact, the historically black university hadn't had a clean one in more than 20 years.
And embarrassing because ugly stereotypes haunted him - the ones that suggest black people can't run big institutions or manage money.
So the new chancellor called a meeting. And in his slow, steady Central Florida drawl, he told the university's entire finance staff that the audit was unacceptable. He said he looked at everybody's academic credentials and knew it wasn't a matter of talent. "What do you need?" he asked.
I'll get it, he promised. But then, you have to get it done.
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When Ammons assumes the helm of Florida A&M University July 2, supporters will be looking for a savior more than a president.
Florida's only historically black public university is facing one of the biggest crises in its 120-year history. Nagging fiscal problems threaten to undermine both its financial bond status and its academic accreditation.
FAMU's woes read like a script from a higher ed horror flick: Its pharmacy school is at risk of losing accreditation. Its once golden business school is still recovering from a morale slump that followed the retirement of its founding dean. And its engineering school appears headed for new management - at majority white Florida State University, no less.
Enrollment is down, students are threatening sit-ins and lawmakers say a criminal investigation could be next.
All this from a university that, 10 years ago, was Time magazine's College of the Year.
Meanwhile, at NCCU, the first thing visitors see when they drive south from Interstate 40 is a massive new dorm of stately red brick - and a crane on the skyline.
Situated on 106 acres of rolling green hills, NCCU is humming with thousands of new students and $121-million worth of construction, including a biotechnology center that aims to make NCCU a player in the state's high-powered Research Triangle.
Academically, NCCU is making a play for the nation's top black students, like FAMU used to do. Athletically, its football team went 11-1.
If NCCU is what FAMU was - a school on the rise - then Ammons is the common denominator. The Winter Haven native was FAMU's provost before taking the top job at NCCU in 2001. And NCCU supporters almost universally credit him with using the FAMU blueprint to turn a small-but-proud school into the fastest-growing university in North Carolina.
Ammons "brought a directed leadership," said Carlton Wilson, who chairs NCCU's history department. He "helped bring to fruition what people had been wanting to do for a long time."
The changes aren't just physical. NCCU student Jite Arhagba said before Ammons arrived, NCCU students would tell people what school they attended and the confused response would be, "N.C. State?" That doesn't happen as much anymore.
"We definitely get a lot of publicity," Arhagba said. "We can raise our heads higher and say, 'We go to Central.' "
Ammons' success has come despite a fair share of crises, including the unflattering audit, an outbreak of toxic mold in student dorms and a loss of accreditation at the business school. All share parallels with the administrative fires at FAMU, except they flared one by one instead of raging all at once.
But all were extinguished quickly, with Ammons both getting credit and sharing it.
The "student affairs vice chancellor and director of residential life went into a crisis mode," Ammons said of the 2003 mold incident, which forced NCCU to find off-campus accommodations for 500 students a week before fall classes began. "It was like a miracle."
In yet another blowup, Ammons and NCCU found themselves in the harsh glare of a national spotlight last year. After a black NCCU student accused white lacrosse players at nearby Duke University of raping her, the news hordes descended. Reporters wanted to know: Would Durham explode?
It could have, but it didn't. By all accounts, Ammons played a pivotal role during those early, tension-filled weeks, even if his contributions were overlooked by a media focused on other themes.
Crisis defused? That's not a story.
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Ammons, 54, is not the kind of guy who takes over a room. At least, not at first.
He's tall, but not towering; charming, but not magnetic; a little reserved, but by no means a shrinking violet. At NCCU, students and faculty describe him as warm, humble, approachable, confident. When he greets students in the cafeteria, even the ones trying to "look hard" smile and shake his hand.
"He's just a down-to-earth man," said Rony Camille, editor of the student newspaper, the Campus Echo.
"A Southern gentleman," said Richard Smith, who heads NCCU's alumni association.
In interviews, Ammons, a political scientist by training, chooses his words carefully. He would rather not describe his feelings. He would rather say he was disappointed than mad.
But he does get mad.
Just before Christmas 2005, Ammons learned that the dean of the NCCU business school a soon-to-be former dean had allowed the school's accreditation from one agency to lapse while the school was in the process of seeking accreditation from another, more prestigious group. He found out because the first agency sent him a letter notifying him of NCCU's newly expired status.
"Inexcusable," Ammons recalled last week. "Disturbing," he said.
But wasn't he steamed?
"Oh yeah," he said. "Look, since I have been here - actually, since I have been a provost, a chancellor - I never experienced losing an accreditation. This was the first. It was just totally unexpected and disappointing."
Ammons asked faculty what they needed to get the accreditation back, then got them the resources they wanted.
"He gave us a blank check," said economics professor ABM Nasir. "He said, 'Do it your own way. What you need from me, just tell me.' "
In the meantime, Ammons met with students, parents and others in a series of meetings aimed at informing and reassuring. It's an approach he said he'll bring to FAMU.
"You have to make certain that everybody is informed, that they don't hear these things from other sources, that we are in control of the message, and that we're open and forthcoming and frank," Ammons said.
The end result: Restoring accreditation was expected to take more than a year, but NCCU got its status back before the business school's seniors graduated in the spring.
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In March 2006, Ammons was on vacation with his wife. They had just landed in California when he got the call.
An NCCU student said she had been raped by lacrosse players from Duke.
"I was deeply troubled," Ammons said. About the student, of course. But also about the bigger picture.
"Durham is 40 percent African-American. It's a very ... civically engaged community," he said. So the situation "was very volatile. And then of course, when I was told that nobody had been arrested ..."
In the following days, students and other NCCU supporters urged Ammons to be aggressive, confrontational. Think what would have happened had black NCCU athletes been accused of raping a white Duke student, they said. Would the NCCU athletes still be going to class?
Ammons knew the answer. But he also believed other key players in the community, including Duke president Richard Brodhead - whom he considered a friend - were committed to doing the right thing. He had cultivated ties with them since arriving in Durham. He did not think they would let NCCU down.
So he went against the grain, and his own initial gut reaction.
"I'm human, too. And I'm African-American. I got to tell you, there was a temptation to take a harder line," he said.
But in the end, Ammons counseled his students to be patient, to be respectful of the system, and to let the system work. He made several appearances with Duke's president and encouraged NCCU students to meet with their Duke counterparts.
Outsiders and activists were urging NCCU students to take to the streets. Ammons wondered, "How long would my message stick?"
Long enough, it turns out, for other information to emerge and make the situation look less black and white.
Ammons "brought reason to people," said North Carolina state Rep. Mickey Michaux, an NCCU graduate who represents Durham. He "walked a fine line, but that's the way he is."
"James showed courage and dignity in insisting that the legal process be allowed to determine the truth," Brodhead said in a written statement. "One cannot overestimate the calming influence he had."
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After the scathing audit, NCCU's finance staff told Ammons they needed more help and more training.
So Ammons found money to increase the number of internal auditors from one to four, and he instituted workshops so all administrators could get up to speed on policies and procedures. He also fired some NCCU employees and hired private companies to take over the bookstore and ticketing office.
Not very exciting, maybe. But NCCU's next audit came back squeaky clean.
Times staff writer Demorris Lee and researchers Cathy Wos and Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Ron Matus can be reached at (727) 893-8873 or email@example.com.
Hometown: Winter Haven
Family: Wife, Judy; 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).
FAMU salary: $325,000
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.