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At FAMU, bad hiring practically a policy

Numerous problems point to a level of cronyism that goes far beyond the norm.

By RON MATUS
Published June 9, 2007


In 1998, Florida A&M University hired an accountant named Curtis Hagan to work in financial affairs. It was a routine hire -- except for the fact Hagan had just gotten out of prison for shaking down bribes.

A few years later, Hagan was canned after supervisors complained he was lazy and incompetent.

The rise and fall of a $35,000-a-year accountant with a rap sheet wouldn't be worth mentioning if it was an isolated event. But for years, FAMU students and faculty have joked, groaned and openly wondered about the extent of questionable hiring -- if not outright cronyism -- on campus.

In 2000, FAMU hired an associate dean who had been convicted of raping a 13-year-old in Texas -- despite hearing rumors about his tainted past. In 2003, it installed a Kentucky lawyer into an endowed chair he created -- and then agreed to pay him $100,000 a year.

The latest example may have emerged this week: The St. Petersburg Times reported Wednesday about FAMU's decision in 2005 to hire a law professor who posted an online working paper so marred with grammatical gaffes that one writing expert found it incoherent.

That professor now directs FAMU's legal writing program.

Bill Tucker, the former head of FAMU's faculty union, said a colleague once described questionable hiring at FAMU by saying, "We got a lot of ships here ...kinships, bed ships, relationships."

FAMU does not corner the market on dubious hiring. Contacts and who-you-know are a fact of life at any large institution including newspapers, and there are endless examples outside FAMU of buddy-buddy ties clouding a good employer's judgment.

But some FAMU observers say it's not unreasonable to suspect it's worse at FAMU.

Tallahassee is a small town. The black community there is tight-knit. The pool of black professionals and black academics is limited. And the world of historically black colleges and universities is a universe unto itself. Given those realities and FAMU's festering problems with fiscal controls, some observers say it only follows that there are entrenched problems with personnel, too.

Then again, who really knows?

State auditors routinely look over FAMU's shoulder to raise red flags about questionable accounting. But who double-checks hiring and firing?

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In the spring of 2000, Arthur Washington, then the dean of the FAMU College of Arts and Sciences, offered Kiah Edwards III, then a department chair at Alabama State University, the job of associate dean.

According to Tallahassee Democrat coverage at the time, Washington said he began hearing rumors about a criminal past after Edwards accepted the position. He said he confronted Edwards, and Edwards denied it, so he hired him. FAMU administrators, then under the leadership of president Frederick Humphries, did not do a criminal background check.

But faculty did. Tucker said professors were concerned that nobody seemed to have Edwards' resume even though Edwards was being considered for a tenured position in the biology department. So they went looking. And along the way, they found Edwards listed on the Internet as a sex offender in Texas.

Edwards resigned. But to this day, nobody's sure why FAMU officials looked the other way.

Tucker's best guess? "A friend was just trying to give him a break."

The case continues to stump Steve Uhlfelder, too. At the time, he was on the now-defunct board that oversaw FAMU and other state universities.

"Heads should have rolled," he said.

But they didn't. Instead, on the day Edwards resigned, Humphries said he still didn't think FAMU needed to revisit its policy on background checks.

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In June 2005, interim FAMU president Castell Bryant fired Shirley Cunningham Jr. from an endowed chair he established at the law school.

Cunningham is a friend of Humphries. He made a fortune on cases involving the diet drug fen-phen. He gave the law school $1-million. But then, in a highly unusual arrangement, he was appointed to the chair he created and given a fat salary. Bryant said she found no evidence he had done any work.

Former law school dean Percy Luney said Humphries approved the arrangement with Cunningham and verbally slapped him down when he questioned it. Humphries has denied that.

But the case remains in play. Earlier this year, the Department of Financial Services concluded Bryant was right about Cunningham's featherweight workload and recommended FAMU take steps to recover nearly $200,000. At the request of FAMU trustees, the state Attorney General's Office is reviewing the matter.

Meanwhile, the law school is reeling again.

Two months after Cunningham was fired, interim law dean James Douglas recommended that FAMU hire Victoria Dawson, a legal writing instructor at Texas Southern University, where Douglas used to be dean. A year later, he made Dawson the director of FAMU's legal writing program.

The appointment came even though Dawson had posted a working paper online that was so filled with errors it has since made her a laughingstock among students. Douglas told the Times he glanced at the paper before making Dawson director, but could not remember his impressions.

Some observers say Dawson's case might show how questionable hiring at FAMU is tangled up with other realities. There is a relatively small pool of black professionals and academics who circulate among historically black colleges and universities. And given five years' worth of negative headlines, some say the pool for FAMU has gotten even smaller.

"I imagine it is difficult to attract top talent to smaller cities or to an organization that has had so much upheaval," FAMU trustee Laura Branker wrote in an e-mail. "Even when we used a headhunter to search for new deans, the selection pool was disappointingly limited."

Other observers, though, say FAMU often limits itself.

Some professors complain that many faculty openings are only advertised on the FAMU Web site. That may fulfill the letter of the law, they say.

But it also seems to send the message that FAMU isn't willing to look far and wide for the best.

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Hagan, the former FAMU accountant, said nobody pulled strings for him in 1998. He said the only thing that may have worked in his favor was the fact he was a FAMU graduate.

"You would hope your own institution would give you a chance," he said in a phone interview.

In November 1997, court records show, the FBI recorded and videotaped Hagan - then a senior tax specialist with the state Department of Revenue -- meeting with a businessman in Alabama. Hagan accepted $3,900 in cash from the man in return for "killing" the $7,900 the man owed in Florida taxes. He later pled guilty to bribery and was sentenced to three months in prison.

Hagan said there's more to his case than meets the eye. He suggested it's the price he paid for working to try to defeat a powerful politician in a local election.

Personnel records show he did not try to hide his criminal record. But FAMU officials never asked him about it, either, he said.

His contract was not renewed in June 2005, two years after supervisors first complained in writing about shoddy work and "loitering."

Hagan blames cronyism.

At the time, president Bryant said she was gunning to get rid of it. But Hagan says she was just practicing her own version.

"If you were in their club, you benefited," he said.

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