Doors are spinning at FAMU

High turnover in key positions is not helping matters.

Published May 22, 2007

In the past week, Florida A&M University's interim president announced she was stepping down early and the provost said she was leaving, too. In the past two months, five of 13 FAMU trustees have either quit or been replaced.

At most universities, this would be earth-shattering.

At FAMU, it's business as usual.

Since former president Frederick Humphries said goodbye at the end of 2001, Florida's only historically black public university has had a revolving door in top positions, including deans, trustees, executive directors and vice presidents.

Counting interims, there have been five athletic directors in five years, four deans at the business school, four vice presidents for student affairs and four vice presidents for research. Just since 2005, four different directors have run the financial aid office.

"I hardly know who's working in some of these offices, " said Bill Tucker, a retired physics professor and former faculty union president. "I call up there and all kinds of strange names show up."

Feuling feuding

Instability has allowed factional feuding to escalate, and worsened or prolonged FAMU's fiscal problems. It has also drawn the attention of state auditors, who pointed to turnover problems repeatedly in their most recent review.

Turnover isn't unique to FAMU, but "it's been a little more devastating for FAMU because they've had a void in leadership for five years, " said state Sen. Al Lawson, D-Tallahassee, a FAMU graduate whose district includes FAMU.

At Florida State University, by contrast, the same provost has been in place 12 years, the same vice president for finance for 16.

Some FAMU supporters say more than institutional knowledge has been lost.

Excessive turnover "took us away from looking at a cohesive, shared, holistic vision for the future, " said Corey Alston, a former trustee and former corporate turnaround specialist for the international consulting firm McKinsey & Co. "It took us away from the big picture and it might have even brought into question, 'What is the big picture?' "

Humphries ran the school for 16 years with a core group of longtime administrators. He was replaced by interim president Henry Lewis III, who was replaced by president Fred Gainous, who was fired and replaced by Bryant, who announced last week - in the face of withering criticism from many FAMU supporters - she would resign ahead of schedule. Trustees appointed a former provost to be the head guy (they decided he would not be called "interim president") until president-designate James Ammons takes over in July.

New presidents want their own people in key positions, and those people want to hire their own staffs. But when turnover becomes the norm, hiring becomes difficult.

At some point, turnover also undercuts the university's academic mission. The FAMU law school has had two interim deans since June 2005, when Bryant canned the permanent dean over a scandal involving an employee who drew a $100, 000 salary but did not work. Yet, because of a looming deadline, the law school has still been forced to slog through a complicated process to gain full accreditation, leaving some students and faculty uneasy.

"The fact that we haven't had a dean has really hindered our accreditation process, " Robert Grimaldi, a law school student from Tampa, wrote in an e-mail. But Ammons, the incoming president, has promised a permanent dean by the fall, Grimaldi continued, "so that brings us some hope."

Top administrators aren't the only ones being shuffled. State auditors have called attention to an "unusually large" amount of overtime payments in some FAMU departments, including campus security and groundskeeping. In its response, the university acknowledged the latter had been short-staffed for several years "due to budget constraints, staff turnovers and a high level of absenteeism."

"We are severely understaffed, " said Theresa Mordica, a senior custodian. "It used to be we would have five or six custodians, including the supervisor, per building. Now we're lucky to get two or three."

Bolts from the blue

In 2001, the dean of the College of Education was accused of stealing more than $60, 000 in state funds. FAMU has had at least three interim or permanent education deans since. And in 2005, the man who essentially worked as FAMU's associate controller was indicted for allegedly creating fictitious loans at a federal credit union.

Turnover in fiscal staff has been especially critical. Since July 2002, FAMU has had five top financial officers. During one stretch, it went six months without one.

In March 2005, both the vice president for financial services and the controller resigned after FAMU submitted a fix-it plan to a key legislative committee.

Two years later, state auditors issued a report rife with concerns about - what else? - turnover.

FAMU officials said in the report that staff shortages were to blame for improper controls for electronic fund transfers and incomplete reviews of commissions tied to auxiliary contracts. Auditors said staff shortages may be behind ballooning costs for consulting services, which grew from about $900, 000 in the 2002-03 fiscal year to more than $10-million in 2005-06.

FAMU officials did not respond to written questions from the St. Petersburg Times regarding turnover in fiscal staff.

But Grace Ali, FAMU's chief financial officer, readily acknowledged the problem to the state task force formed to right the university's fiscal affairs. At last month's meeting, she passed out a diagram showing turnover in top financial positions, including her own seat, which she has held for eight months.

Diverting the staff

Ali's comments suggested FAMU may have become mired in a vicious cycle: Given the negative publicity generated by its financial problems, hiring quality staff has become more difficult. So top administrators like Ali are being diverted from bigger tasks to get bogged down in things like reconciling bank accounts.

That's "really not what I want to spend my time on, and it's not what the taxpayers are paying me to do, " Ali said. "But if that's what it takes, because we have to have it, then we do whatever is necessary."

Times correspondent Angel Suri and Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Ron Matus can be reached at (727) 893-8873 or matus@sptimes.com.