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FAMU board chief on way out

Published April 18, 2007


TALLAHASSEE - The board that oversees Florida A&M University appears headed for new leadership.

The state Senate is unlikely to confirm Challis Lowe, the embattled chairwoman of the FAMU board of trustees, for another term, which opens the door for a new leader and a swing in the board's balance of power.

State Sen. Steve Oelrich, R-Gainesville, told the St. Petersburg Times on Tuesday that his committee will dedicate the entirety of its last meeting next week to issues of campus security, in the wake of shootings at Virginia Tech.

Oelrich chairs the Higher Education Committee, one of two that must confirm Lowe in order for her to continue serving. Without Senate approval, Lowe's term on the board will end when the legislative session concludes May 4.

Lowe, an executive vice president for Dollar General Corp., was out of the country Tuesday and could not be reached for comment. But in an interview with the St. Petersburg Times last month, she said she would neither resign nor fight.

"My record speaks for itself," she said. "I'm not going to get into a dogfight."

The decision by key senators not to schedule Lowe for confirmation hearings all but ensures she will fade from power without a potentially messy fight, or more negative headlines for an already reeling FAMU.

Said one high-ranking Senate staffer: Lowe is getting "the great Russian runaround."

"It's obvious she's not going to be taken up in committee," said Sen. Al Lawson, D-Tallahassee, a longtime Lowe critic whose district includes FAMU.

On appointments, the Senate typically defers to the local senator. "There was opposition from some alumni and some in the business community," Lawson continued. "People just couldn't accept the fact that she didn't vote for Ammons."

That would be James Ammons, the incoming FAMU president.

In February, Lowe was on the losing end of a 7-6 vote by the trustees to make Ammons - a former FAMU provost - the university's new chief executive. Lowe's critics were enraged, and FAMU's powerful alumni association called on university supporters everywhere to lobby lawmakers for her ouster.

Even before the vote, Lowe, 61, had become a lightning rod. She stood by interim FAMU president Castell Bryant, whose hard-charging style alienated many at FAMU, including former supporters. And the most recent state audit - issued a month after the Ammons vote - seemed to show that neither Bryant nor Lowe had made good on promises to get FAMU's fiscal house in order.

Lowe's tenure as board chairwoman began in February 2005 and parallels one of the most tumultuous periods in FAMU history. Enrollment is falling. Lawmakers are angry. And after the most recent audit, the state Board of Governors, which oversees universities, formed a special task force to oversee FAMU finances.

Lowe's defenders say those problems festered long before Lowe's arrival, and that the chairwoman deserves credit for uprooting some of them and beating back others.

"That lady has given great service to this university. Thankless service," trustee George Allen said last month.

[Last modified April 18, 2007, 03:22:06]

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