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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
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Ensuring FAMU's future
Six months from possibly losing its accreditation, Florida A&M University welcomes its 10th president. His job:
By SHANNON COLAVECCHIO-VAN SICKLER
Published July 1, 2007
Incoming Florida A&M University president James Ammons shakes hands with incoming freshman Darrell Johnson in front of Lee Hall. Johnson was visiting the campus with his parents Karon and A.J. Johnson.
[Times photo: Daniel Wallace]
[Times photo: Daniel Wallace]
James Ammons proved his skills as chancellor at North Carolina Central University. He is credited with reversing a number of financial and academic problems similar to those now plaguing FAMU.
FAMU's many fires
James Ammons has many problems to address when he takes the helm Monday:
Accreditation problems for the overall university and for its pharmacy school, business school and law school.
Separate investigations by the Department of Labor and by the state Department of Financial Services. The state is looking into FAMU's now-defunct Urban Policy Institute; the Labor Department won't release details on its inquiry.
High turnover in a number of key vice president and dean spots, plus critical turnover in financial positions.
A review by the Florida attorney general into the hiring and firing of Shirley Cunningham Jr., a diet drug millionaire who gave the law school $1-million and then was appointed to the high-paying endowed chair's position his donation created.
Lawsuits filed by the former inspector general, by the former head of the Urban Policy Institute and by the former head of the National Achievement Scholars program.
Poor retention and graduation rates.
Financial mismanagement and poor recordkeeping that prompted the creation of a state task force.
TALLAHASSEE - Florida A&M University rests majestically atop the highest of this city's seven hills, but its campus bears the scars of turmoil.
The grass is brown and patchy in parts. Inside some classroom buildings, hallway bulletin boards that should showcase programs and announcements are bare, seemingly forgotten. The president's house, unoccupied since longtime leader Frederick Humphries left in 2001, sits shuttered and in need of repairs.
This is a university in peril. Years of financial and management problems, exacerbated by instability in the president's office, have escalated to crisis level. The state's only historically black public university is in danger of losing its national accreditation, the must-have seal of approval that makes a degree valuable and qualifies students for federal financial aid.
Into this firestorm comes James H. Ammons, who takes over Monday as FAMU's 10th president, and arguably its most important.
Expectations for the former FAMU provost and alumnus are high. Supporters are counting on him to restore order and pride after years of one embarrassing development after another.
"He brings us hope in a time where we've been in such a long period of not having a permanent president," said student body president Monique Gillum, 20, a senior majoring in political science. "He's a true Rattler."
But Ammons' arrival is not without taint.
Six of FAMU's 13 trustees passed over the 54-year-old Winter Haven native in favor of another finalist, a Maryland college president with no FAMU ties.
"Dr. Ammons was seen by some board members as part of the old guard," conceded longtime trustee Bill Jennings, who voted for Ammons. "He was viewed by others as part of a change."
Ammons jokes that he thought the vote was "a landslide," but insists, "I wasn't bothered by it at all."
"My administration, what we have to do is accept the fact that we have challenges and opportunities," he said. "We must face them head-on and look toward the future. We cannot look to the past and say, 'Whose fault was that? Who was to blame?' "
Those who believe FAMU's recent problems are the final stages of a lengthy illness wonder whether Ammons, with his deep FAMU roots, is right for the much-needed overhaul.
"It's going to take a whole different approach," said interim president Castell Bryant, who left in May amid criticism that her 2 1/2-year tenure was a failure. "The savior days are gone."
Ammons said he has no interest in revisiting history. FAMU's pressing problems demand that he focus on much-needed future improvements.
"The fact is, the problems could have started in 1887 or they could have started in 2007," he said. "It doesn't matter. Because right now, they're mine."
Previous tenure mixed
Ammons pronounced am-muns was FAMU's No. 2 administrator in the late 1990s, when state audits began documenting problems with recordkeeping, money management and contracts.
Ammons was provost when FAMU hired Kiah Edwards III, a convicted child rapist from Texas, as an associate dean. He was provost when the business school failed in its first bid for accreditation.
After Edwards resigned, Ammons told the Tallahassee Democrat that he had not thoroughly reviewed Edwards' credentials. Asked last week about the hire, Ammons said he remembers little about the situation.
But there is no denying that the Humphries-Ammons administration was also in place when FAMU's enrollment, student caliber and national profile soared.
The school got more than 20 new degree programs and reopened its law school, two accomplishments Ammons counts as highlights of his tenure.
FAMU competed with Harvard for National Achievement Scholars, the top 800 black high school graduates in the country. FAMU was the largest producer of black teachers and pharmacists. Its business college graduates made fat salaries with Fortune 500 companies.
In 1997, FAMU was named Time magazine's College of the Year for the access and opportunities it offered minorities.
Barney Bishop, a former FAMU trustee who now leads the business lobby giant Associated Industries of Florida, is confident Ammons can bring back those kinds of accolades: "He knows FAMU, he understands the culture, he understands the challenges that are there."
Most recently, Ammons proved his skills as chancellor at North Carolina Central University. He is credited with reversing a number of financial and academic problems similar to those now plaguing FAMU and with deftly handling the national controversy over a female NCCU student's false rape claims against members of the Duke University lacrosse team.
Today, NCCU is the fastest-growing university in North Carolina. The campus shines with more than $100-million in new construction. NCCU competes for the nation's brightest black students -- just like FAMU did when Ammons left six years ago.
"I know that the expectations for me here are high," Ammons said last week. "We'll have to manage those expectations as best as we can. But I think people have seen the types of things I've been able to do here as provost and at North Carolina Central. I sense a heightened and renewed spirit on campus."
Ammons plans to bring much of his leadership team from NCCU to FAMU, "and we're going to work as hard as we can. If I am successful as a leader, then the people of this university will follow my direction."
Steep climb ahead
FAMU is not the university it was when Ammons left, and its situation is even more dire than when he was selected president in February.
Finances are in disarray, laid out in embarrassing detail in a scathing state audit released after Ammons got the president's job. The board overseeing the state's 11 public universities recently formed a task force to sort out the mess. FAMU is also the subject of state and federal investigations and lawsuits.
The pharmacy college, journalism school, law school and business school are struggling to secure accreditation. Student retention and graduation rates are flagging. Academic and financial departments are reeling from high turnover in top positions. Last week, Ammons was interviewing candidates to lead the law school.
But the biggest worry for Ammons is the six-month probation recently imposed by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools' Commission on Colleges.
The university has six months to shape up or risk being stripped of its accreditation.
Ammons this month will unveil his plan for addressing SACS' concerns. He said he knows he has a tough road ahead, and he anticipates making tough decisions that might rankle those in the FAMU community who have done things a certain way for a long time.
"A lot of times when we talk about change, we're really talking about changing the culture of a place, and sometimes that takes a little bit longer than other things take," Ammons conceded. "But I think Florida A&M is in a situation now where everyone in this community knows that change has to occur, and it has to occur quickly. It's not business as usual anymore.
"The stakes are too high."
Times staff writer Ron Matus contributed to this report. Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3403.
FAMU's students at a glance
Total Avg. Avg. high enrollment SAT score * school GPA *