FAMU instructor sails through hot water
Trouble follows him in high-profile jobs.
By RON MATUS
Published July 11, 2007
Florida has had its share of political Houdinis, but Bill Proctor may best them all.
Since 1996, Proctor, a Leon County commissioner, has represented a thick slice of the state capital in Tallahassee despite repeated dives into political hot water. A state attorney investigated him. The Florida Ethics Commission penalized him. The Florida Elections Commission hit him with a huge fine.
And yet Proctor managed not only to get re-elected three times, but also to land a plum job in an ivory tower.
Florida A&M University hired him as a visiting professor in August 2000 - one week after he settled a highly publicized case with the Ethics Commission and while an investigation into his campaign finances was going full bore.
He's still there, making $50,000 a year.
He teaches political science.
Proctor doesn't see anything unusual. He says he's more qualified than any political science professor in Florida. He says the late Gov. Lawton Chiles - one of the legends of Florida politics - wouldn't have been re-elected without him. And he says his political life on the edge is a plus when it comes to teaching.
"I don't think nobody brings experience to the classroom in political science that I'm bringing," he told the St. Petersburg Times last week. "I'm the one teacher out of all of them in the state of Florida who can say, 'Yeah, I know how the Elections Commission works, how the Ethics Commission works, how the administrative courts work.' ... I know because I've been in them. ... I've survived them all."
To some observers, FAMU's decision to put Proctor on the payroll - and then to keep him despite a torrent of embarrassing headlines - only adds to its reputation for questionable hiring.
FAMU is in Proctor's commission district, and his ties to the school run deep. Now 48, Proctor had been an adjunct instructor at FAMU for more than a decade when he applied to be an assistant professor. His application was approved by then-provost James Ammons, who became FAMU's new president last week. His contracts are year to year.
By fall 2001, students were complaining. The campus newspaper wrote about Proctor skipping class. The dean gave him a stern reprimand.
"Mr. Proctor, you must report to the department chair and give authenticated reasons for your absences from work," wrote Arthur Washington, then head of the College of Arts and Sciences. "If the reasons are not satisfactory and accepted, a review of your continuous successful employment at the University will be made."
And yet the complaints continue.
Several students told the Times that Proctor's class is widely viewed as the easiest A on campus. One said Proctor - who was reclassified as an "instructor" several years ago - did not give tests, rambled during lectures and allowed students to leave after they signed the roll. Among other classes, he's listed as teaching state and local government and American constitutional law.
Sakina Bowser, a 21-year-old senior, said Proctor's attendance continued to be a problem. It was "frequent enough to where one person would go to class and call everybody if he was there," said Bowser, who took a local government class with Proctor two years ago.
FAMU officials should not be surprised.
On his application, Proctor noted his last job before winning the commission seat was as a special assistant to Chiles. Under "Reason For Leaving," Proctor wrote: "Original supervisor left. New supervisor wanted different style from mine. Worked at pleasure and new guy did not extend the pleasure."
The new guy was Chuck Wolfe, Chiles' director of external affairs. Reached in Washington, D.C., Wolfe said he essentially fired Proctor because Proctor was a "professional mess."
"He would show up whenever he wanted," said Wolfe, who now works for the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund. In fact, a frequent question in the governor's office was, "Where's Proctor?"
One of Proctor's duties was building contacts in Leon and a handful of other counties, so the governor's office would know who to reach in case of, say, a natural disaster or pressing policy issue. But "when I would ask, 'Show me your list of contacts in each county,' there weren't any," Wolfe said.
Proctor said Wolfe's characterization is "total BS." In fact, he said, he's the reason Chiles won a tight race against Jeb Bush in 1994. "You subtract my work and you don't have Chiles re-elected," he said. He would not elaborate.
So why was he essentially fired? Proctor's first response: "Why don't you ask the governor?" Chiles died in 1998.
His second response: "I have no idea. The ideas that I have are certainly not politically correct to disclose." Again, he would not elaborate.
Wolfe said as far as he can recall, nobody from FAMU ever contacted him about Proctor's employment.
In a written response to questions from the Times, Ammons said Proctor was hired based on a recommendation from the political science department. "I am not aware of any 'issues' at that time which would have prohibited" Proctor's hiring, Ammons wrote.
Gary Paul, who chaired the Department of History, Political Science, Geography and African American Studies in 2000 and recommended Proctor be hired, did not return calls and an e-mail for comment. Neither did current department chair Juanita Gaston.
Proctor's position was not advertised in 2000, but there probably would have been no shortage of other applicants had it been. Even a nontenured, teaching position like the one Proctor snagged would likely generate 30 or 40 hits from applicants with doctoral degrees in political science, said the chair of the political science department at another Florida university.
Proctor's take? "I'm overqualified."
Over the course of a 25-minute interview, he compared himself, in different respects, to Scooter Libby, Deion Sanders and former Florida State University president Sandy D'Alemberte.
He repeatedly cited his work in the governor's office as one reason he was especially qualified - even after agreeing he had been essentially fired. "The experience I had working for Chiles was still experience working for Chiles," he said.
He said he had degrees in public relations and political science and a juris doctorate, "the same degree that the president of Florida State University has" - meaning former president D'Alemberte, a legal titan who once headed the American Bar Association.
Proctor did not offer, until pressed, that he merely minored in political science at Howard University. Or that he failed to pass the Florida bar exam.
Even after he became a professor, Proctor's MIA reputation dogged him.
In a well-publicized incident in 2001, he missed a court hearing on his elections violations case, even though a court reporter testified she saw him that morning in the courthouse. In 2003, his driver's license was suspended for failing to pay a traffic ticket. In 2005 and 2006, the IRS put liens on him for not paying his taxes.
Still, FAMU renewed his contract.
Tallahassee political observers say Proctor is a reliable vote for FAMU. Last year, for example, he helped convince fellow commissioners to award a $300,000 contract to a small business development center at FAMU. This year, he mounted a vigorous defense when commissioners moved to cancel it.
In March, Proctor was one of the few people with FAMU ties who traveled to Gainesville to watch Ammons' confirmation as FAMU president. "That just makes sense, sir," he said. "I talk to other leaders on a regular basis."
Back at FAMU, a former editor of The FAMUAN, the student newspaper, said it planned to write about Proctor last spring, but its staff was too swamped covering, among other things, FAMU's fiscal woes.
Ammons said he could not comment on whether FAMU students were getting quality teaching from Proctor. He cited Florida statutes and FAMU rules regarding the confidentiality of academic records.
Proctor said the complaints are off base. He said his attendance has improved but doesn't dispute his class is a breeze. "I can accept that," he said. "But I think I have the discretion and academic freedom to grade my courses as I deem."
"This is political science," he continued. "It ain't high technology and how many bolts of steel you need to have in a 40-story building."
Times researcher Caryn Baird and staff writer Nicole Bardo-Colon contributed to this report. Ron Matus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Comments can be posted on the Times education blog, The Gradebook, at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.