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FAMU told to shape up

The school could lose accreditation if it doesn't fix problems.

By SHANNON COLAVECCHIO-VAN SICKLER AND RON MATUS
Published June 23, 2007


TALLAHASSEE - Florida A & M University is at risk of losing its accreditation, the latest and most serious blow for the state's only historically black public institution, which is struggling to overcome years of financial and management woes.

The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, during a meeting of its 77-member Commission on Colleges this week, placed FAMU on a six-month probation after concluding the university is not complying with 10 accrediting standards for financial accountability, leadership, and controls over areas including sponsored research and inventory.

Tom Benberg, vice president and chief of staff for the SACS, said that if FAMU does not rectify the issues by the end of the probationary period, "the worst-case scenario" would be that the 120-year-old university loses its accreditation altogether.

In that event, the value of a FAMU degree would plummet, and students would no longer be eligible for federal financial aid.

Such a loss could devastate FAMU, which already is losing students in the face of recent problems. Most its nearly 12,000 students depend on federal aid.

"As a university, you cannot function if people cannot get financial assistance," said Panhandle Sen. Al Lawson, the Democratic minority leader who graduated from FAMU in 1970.

Bernberg said he could not recall another of Florida's public colleges being put on probation.

Founded on Oct. 3, 1887 as the State Normal College for Colored Students, FAMU began classes with 15 students and two instructors. Today it remains a predominantly black institution and, in spite of its troubles, is the nation's largest producer of African-American baccalaureates. Enrollment peaked at 13,070 in 2004.

Former student body president Phillip Agnew called the SACS sanction "startling" but doesn't expect the probationary status to spur current FAMU students to leave. He does think it might be enough, on top of a steady stream of other negative headlines, to make prospective students "think twice" about becoming FAMU Rattlers.

The probation comes less than two weeks before former FAMU provost and alumnus James Ammons, 54, takes over as president. He starts July 2 with alumni and students and staff counting on him to turn around daunting, deep-rooted problems that state audits show date back to longtime president Frederick Humphries.

Ammons, formerly chancellor at North Carolina Central University, could not be reached for comment Friday. The acting FAMU leader, Dr. Larry Robinson, said FAMU will depend greatly on Ammons' past experience as a member of the SACS commission, where he served on several accrediting committees.

FAMU officials, including Ammons, plan to hold a news conference about the probation next week, after they get an official report from the SACS.

"We'll be prepared, in a very public way, to work to address those issues so we can restore the public's confidence and SACS' confidence in the university," said FAMU trustees chair Bill Jennings.

A special SACS committee will visit FAMU in the fall to ensure changes are being made and present its findings to the full commission in December.

The commission can extend the probation three more times for a total of two years. It can take FAMU off probation and grant re-accreditation. Or it can revoke accreditation, Benberg said.

SACS accredits private and public two- and four-year institutions throughout the Southeast, including Eckerd College in St. Petersburg and the other 10 public Florida universities. There are about seven dozen SACS accrediting standards colleges must follow, from campus facilities to the quality of academic programs.

Last year, SACS hit only one college with probation: Bishop State Community College in Mobile, Ala. And a small handful of schools remained on probation last year: American InterContinental University in Atlanta; LeMoyne-Owen College in Memphis; and Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, S.C.

In December, the SACS commission placed Eckerd on "warning" status -- one step better than probation -- for a year over concerns about its compliance with three standards on financial stability and campus facilities.

Bernberg did not have statistics on how often schools are successful at getting off probation.

The worst case for FAMU would be to follow in the footsteps of Morris Brown, a historically black college in Atlanta that lost its accreditation and federal funding in 2002 because of money mismanagement by its president that left the school in debt. It remains unaccredited.

Several observers said the SACS decision wasn't a complete surprise, given that serious red flags about FAMU's financial affairs go back at least four years.

"It was not something that dropped out of the sky," said FAMU trustee Daryl Parks, a former FAMU student body president who was appointed by Gov. Charlie Crist in March.

In recent years, FAMU officials have made repeated assurances of progress, only to have outside reviews point out problems.

The most recent example: In 2005, interim president Castell Bryant told lawmakers FAMU was operating in the black, prompting the Legislature's auditing committee to give her a round of applause. But in early 2007, state auditors hit FAMU with their most scathing report yet, listing 35 problems, including failure to pay employees on time, properly perform their annual evaluations and document leave time and sabbaticals.

Around the same time, FAMU officials announced that hundreds of employees were saying they hadn't been paid on time. The developments led some lawmakers to call for a criminal investigation, while the Board of Governors formed a high-profile task force to get FAMU's fiscal house in order.

Board of Governors member Lynn Pappas, head of the task force, called the FAMU's probation "disappointing but not surprising."

Pappas said the task force, which met Thursday in Jacksonville, is zeroing in on FAMU's inability to track and balance finances, which she said is largely due to the university's insufficient computer software systems and lack of trained staff.

"We've got to get to the bottom of that and bring in the resources to help FAMU fix it," Pappas said.

Agnew, the former student body president, said there might be a silver lining in this week's developments.

"Hopefully this news will serve as just the fire that needs to be lit under many people ... so we can get out of these dire straights."

Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler can be reached at svansickler@sptimes.com or 813 226-3403.

Fast Facts:

Where FAMU faltered

The 10 accrediting standards FAMU failed to meet:

2.2: The board is an active policymaking body for the institution and is ultimately responsible for ensuring that the financial resources of the institution are adequate to provide a sound educational program.

2.11.1: The institution has a sound financial base and demonstrated financial stability.

3.2.8: Has qualified administrative and academic officers.

3.10.1: Recent financial history demonstrates financial stability.

3.10.2: Provides financial profile information on an annual basis and other measures of financial health as requested by the commission.

3.10.3: Audits financial aid programs as required.

3.10.4: Exercises appropriate control over all its financial resources.

3.10.5: Maintains financial control over externally funded or sponsored research and programs.

3.11.1: Exercises appropriate control over all its physical resources.

4.7: Is in compliance with its program responsibilities under Title IV of the 1998 Higher Education Amendments.

Source: SACS, www.sacscoc.org