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A Rattler shakes up FAMU
New president James Ammons talks about the school's problems, promise and plans.
By A TIMES EDITORIAL
Published August 5, 2007
James H. Ammons became president of Florida A&M University in Tallahassee on July 2, the 10th leader of Florida's only public historically black university, which was founded in 1887.
For much of the last 10 years, FAMU has been under scrutiny for serious mismanagement problems: missing financial records; employees going unpaid for months; improper overtime and adjunct payments; millions of dollars possibly spent without being in the budget; and questionable student grade changes.
Since longtime president Frederick Humphries resigned under pressure in 2001, FAMU has had two other leaders, Fred Gainous, fired after only two years, and interim president Castell Bryant, who lasted 29 tumultuous months.
Ammons, 54, says he has brought in a fresh team. He must find ways to get the school off a six-month probation handed down recently by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, an accrediting organization.
Ammons graduated from FAMU in 1974 with a bachelor's degree in political science. He earned a master's degree in public administration and a Ph.D. in government from Florida State. He returned to FAMU in 1983 as an associate professor of political science and in 1995 became vice president for academic affairs and provost. In 2001, he went to North Carolina Central University as chancellor, where he remained until returning to FAMU.
Times editorial board member and columnist Bill Maxwell interviewed Ammons last week in his Tallahassee office. Here is an edited transcript, condensed for space.
Q: Many current students, alumni, faculty and administrators say that because you are a "true Rattler," you understand the culture and that this makes you the right person to lead FAMU at this troubled time.
A: I believe that as a true Rattler that person understands how lives are transformed here. Florida A&M University has been a pillar of opportunity for thousands of students who may not have had an opportunity to get a high-quality education. It has helped produce some of the nation's most influential lawmakers, doctors, architects and scientists.
While many have criticized the university in recent years and weeks, no other institution can boast of the success we've had in molding some of the nation's best and brightest citizens of color. Without this opportunity, I would not be where I am today as the 10th president of Florida A&M University.
I stand on the shoulders of those great leaders who came before me and who built a strong foundation for Florida A&M University.
Those who understand the mission of the university should also see its value. It does not just create graduates, it molds families and it sustains the nation through its alumni who contribute to the work force and the civic leadership for society.
So I do understand the culture and believe I am the right person to lead FAMU at this troubled time. Even with these challenges, there are people who believe in FAMU and HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities); that is also a part of our culture - we face our challenges.
Q: Do you have a sense of the systemic root of the problems and which parties you will hold accountable?
A: We have discovered the root causes, at least for our payroll mishaps. We have inefficient processes, an ineffective reporting structure, late submission of personnel documents, a lack of knowledge about the payroll process, and lack of a centralized hiring authority.
We have been working during the past month to hire capable and qualified individuals in our fiscal affairs division. I promised early on in my administration that fiscal integrity would be one of my highest priorities.
We will begin to hold employees accountable for not following the procedures and ultimately, if this continues, we must look at additional changes in staff across the board.
Q: Your interim predecessor, Castell Bryant, said that "cronyism and nepotism" are serious problems in the management of FAMU. Is she right?
A: I have no knowledge of what has happened in that respect since I left the university in 2001. I can only speak to the period that I worked on campus and to what I'm trying to put in place during my current administration. During my tenure at FAMU as provost, my colleagues at the management level were competent. When they ceased to do their jobs, action was taken.
Q: You promised to bring much of your leadership team from North Carolina Central University with you? Have you done so? Did you fire people or move them to different jobs to make room for your team?
A: Yes, I brought some members of my leadership team here from North Carolina. I did not renew the contracts of several members of the executive team who served under interim president Castell Bryant.
Q. The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, the regional accrediting organization, has placed FAMU on six months' probation. Citations include inaccurate operating budgets, lack of control related to degree certification and grade changes, not removing returned checks worth thousands from accounting ledgers, late salary payments and sloppy record-keeping for $1.8-million in athletic department collections. What are your plans to fix these problems?
A: I have mapped out a plan to restore the university's financial integrity and the public's confidence in the university's ability to manage its affairs.
The goal is to have many of the internal control issues addressed by the time SACS visits the campus in early October. The action plan will address three key areas: (1) cash and missing property, (2) board governance and (3) revising and reviewing policies and procedures.
We will document evidence of institutionalization by December 2007. It is an aggressive plan, but I believe that we have the talent and commitment to success to make it happen.
Q: After auditors released their report of the mismanagement findings, some state lawmakers suggested that FAMU should be shut down. What would you say to those who want to close the school?
A: From its earliest beginnings to the present day, FAMU has demonstrated an extraordinary capacity to provide an educational environment that has surpassed even the dreams of its founders. FAMU graduates continue to excel as contributing members of larger society, and despite its recent problems, in many ways FAMU is stronger today than it has ever been.
I have faith in the dreams of those who overcame even greater obstacles to create this institution, and I am determined to use the same values and ideas to continue to create a bright future that will illuminate pathways to excellence for generations yet unborn.
Q: Explain how your long ties to FAMU as a student, professor, vice president and provost can be an asset or a hindrance for the kind of changes you have in mind.
A: My career in academic administration was launched by a fellowship I received during the 1986-87 academic year, as an American Council on Education Fellow. I was given the opportunity to observe the operation and administration of some of the leading universities in the nation.
Upon returning to FAMU in the fall of 1988, I brought to the university nearly $10-million in grant awards from the U.S. Department of Education's program for strengthening Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
As provost, I also experienced success in gaining approval from the Florida Board of Regents for 22 new degree programs at the bachelor's, master's and Ph.D. degree levels.
I believe that Dr. Humphries' era was outstanding because he was able to make strides for FAMU that have been unmatched. During his tenure, FAMU became the No. 1 producer of African- American baccalaureate degree holders, the largest single campus HBCU, No. 1 in the nation in the recruitment of National Achievement Scholars and the Time magazine-Princeton Review 1997 College of the Year. I do not view his era as one riddled with problems, but one of unprecedented achievements.
Q: Many voters believe that FAMU has been treated differently from the state's 10 other public universities.
A: The auditors and others who have reviewed the finances, the management and the academic programs of FAMU use the same standards when they examine FAMU that they use for the other institutions.
And I would say to those who say that FAMU is given a pass, that what they are really doing, in my judgment, is impugning the work of the auditors.
Q: FAMU's general graduation rate is far below those of the other state universities.
A: To begin to prepare our students for the new economies, we have to first retain them and, secondly, make sure that they graduate on time. Currently, our six-year graduation rate for those students who entered FAMU in 2000 is 41.4 percent. Our goal is to increase our six-year graduation rate.
To retain students, residential life must provide comfortable and attractive housing, and (we) must make sure students are able to concentrate on their class assignments instead of worrying about how they're going to pay for their housing, purchase their next meal or their books.
Q: The rumor is that you haven't you spoken with Castell Bryant and her chief financial officer about FAMU's problems.
A: Well, that's not true. I have had several conversations and meetings with Dr. Bryant and Dr. Grace Ali during my transition. They were extremely cooperative in sharing information with me and giving me insights that I am now using to develop the action plan and build on it.
In fact, some of the information that they shared with me gives me confidence that we can resolve these issues.
Q: Let's turn to the College of Law. The college has the lowest bar passage rate among all Florida law schools, public or private.
A: Two of my priorities aimed at assisting the College of Law to improve its passage rate are to appoint a new dean and work to seek full accreditation.
One of the things that I insisted on when I restarted the search for a dean of the College of Law was that faculty, students and staff would have a role in the selection process. In fact, they interviewed all of the finalists for the deanship. One of the things that you have to understand is that I have been chancellor of a university with a law school.
I have served as a reviewer for an American Bar Association accreditation team at a law school, and so I am very familiar with the requirements of the ABA. I'm satisfied that the faculty, staff and students had a significant role to play in the selection process.
Q: Many of FAMU's students, some of your best, are transferring to other schools or trying to transfer to other law schools because, they say, the administration is incompetent.
A: I am aware of the problems, and that's one of the reasons why I expedited the search for dean of the law school. I think that it is important, again, that we have experienced leadership at the law school so that we can create the kind of environment that students expect from a college of law.
Q: Have you been fully briefed about the serious nature of the problems the college faces in gaining full accreditation?
A: Provisional accreditation is granted to new law schools. The faculty at the Law School are working and preparing for the ABA visit in fall 2007. I have a clear picture of what the College of Law needs in order to gain full accreditation, and I think one of the most important steps that we can take at this time is to get a permanent dean in place. The purpose of that visit in October is to ascertain whether or not the College of Law is making progress toward accreditation, and I think we can show that.
Q: You have said often that you will not dwell on the past. Do you not see any wisdom in studying the past?
A: We will review the past to get to root causes of the problems and issues that the university is confronted with today, but it is more important to focus on the future and find a permanent fix for the problems. I intend to fix every problem that happens under my watch and every problem that I'm confronted with to date. It really doesn't matter when the problems started. Whether they started in 1887 or in 2007, I'm the president of the university and it's my responsibility to fix them.
Q: Where do you see FAMU and the law school in five years?
A: I see both as flourishing, vibrant, successful institutions. I don't see anything that we can't resolve. I truly believe that in five years, you are going to see some remarkable differences in this university because of the discipline that we're going to insist upon.
Q: Why is Frederick Humphries still on the FAMU payroll with an office at the College of Law?
A: As a part of his resignation from the presidency of FAMU and the arrangement that was approved by the board of regents, Dr. Humphries is a regent professor in the FAMU College of Law. As a regent professor, Dr. Humphries is working on research and he's also a part of the recruitment effort for students to the College of Law. His salary is $187,000.
Q: You have been described as FAMU's "savior." Do you care to comment?
A: FAMU has lasted for 120 years. There have been many supporters that have worked to preserve FAMU and to continue to make it accountable and available to the people we serve - our students, faculty, staff, parents, employers, the city of Tallahassee and the state of Florida.
While it is a fact that our mission has always been to serve as a lighthouse for those students who may not have had entree into some schools because their test scores were not high enough or because their grade-point average did not seem stellar enough, it is important to remember that historically, intellect alone was not always the determining factor for being denied. Disenfranchisement, financial issues and, yes - during a different time - racism all played a part.
Many FAMU graduates, including this president, were the first in their families to attend college. Many FAMU graduates, like me, are proud to tell the world of the quality education we obtained on The Hill and of the fact that our dreams were realized because of it. So we all must work to save FAMU.
Florida A&M University needs all of us working together as one to move this agenda and ensure the existence of FAMU for generations to come. I believe in FAMU yesterday, FAMU today and FAMU forever.