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FAMU faces big test today
The new president hopes to show enough progress to get off probation.
By SHANNON COLAVECCHIO-VAN SICKLER, Times Staff Writer
Published December 11, 2007
James Ammons became president two weeks after Florida A&M was placed on probation. Keeping its accreditation became his priority.
[Daniel Wallace | Times]
TALLAHASSEE - New president James Ammons arrived on the Florida A&M University campus in July to find his alma mater dogged by sagging enrollment, poor graduation rates and years of messy financial management practices.
The problems were numerous and spread throughout the nation's largest historically black public institution, from the fledgling law school in Orlando to the vaunted pharmacy program in Tallahassee.
But the biggest of those problems - the threat of losing accreditation - could be extinguished today.
The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges meets in New Orleans. If Ammons convinces it that he and his administrative team have addressed the problems that prompted the accrediting body to place FAMU on a six-month probation, it will mark his most important achievement to date.
If not, it will be yet another devastating blow to the college that has seen so many of them in recent years.
Ammons said he is "at peace" going into today's meeting.
"The commission will have a big decision to make," said Ammons, who served on the accrediting body for six years. "But I think we have done everything possible in the time allowed to make the case that we should be taken off probation. It's out of our hands now."
Even if FAMU gets off probation, Ammons knows he can't afford to rest.
There are too many other fires to put out.
Probation in June
The accrediting body's 77-member Commission on Colleges placed FAMU on probation in June, two weeks before Ammons became president.
The commission concluded FAMU was not complying with 10 accrediting standards for financial accountability, leadership and controls over areas including sponsored research and inventory.
The probation came on the heels of a scathing state operational audit that found 35 problems involving millions of dollars in questionable expenses, shoddy bookkeeping and lost inventory.
Ammons was forced to make those concerns a priority - even as he chipped away at other problems.
He quickly put together a team of administrators - many of them from North Carolina Central University, where he had been president - and crafted a lengthy "to-fix" list based on the concerns of the accrediting body and the state auditor general. The list ranged from fixing payroll problems to better controlling research expenses and the use of grants.
This became the foundation for the first 100 days of his presidency.
By October, Ammons and his team garnered some praise when a SACS committee arrived to evaluate FAMU's progress.
After interviewing administrators, staff members, students and faculty members over three days, committee members noted FAMU's "remarkable progress."
"The university has assembled a strong management team and there is also a strong campuswide commitment to addressing the concerns," said Robert Gratz, chairman of the monitoring committee. "Now the new system only needs time to show its effectiveness."
The commission has a few options when it meets today, said Tom Benberg, SACS vice president and chief of staff. It can extend FAMU's probation for another six months, or take FAMU off probation. The latter would allow the university to move forward next year in its bid for full re-accreditation.
The most severe sanction would be to revoke the 120-year-old college's accreditation. No other state university has ever had its accreditation stripped.
Without accreditation, FAMU students would not be eligible for federal financial aid. Recruitment would suffer, as would the value of a FAMU degree.
"The value of every institution's degree floats on the market of perceived value," said Benberg. "The loss of accreditation generally hurts that."
A loss of accreditation also would present a dilemma for the Board of Governors, which formed a financial task force this past spring - in part to assuage lawmakers' concerns over how FAMU spends taxpayer dollars.
Earlier this month, the auditor general released a draft financial audit for the 2006-07 budget year that concluded FAMU has fixed or partially corrected 13 problems from an earlier audit.
Ammons said that audit will boost his case.
"Without that, I think there would have been a huge gap in terms of information from an external source," he said.
Sen. Al Lawson, a FAMU graduate, asked the Board of Governors last week to disband the task force. He cited the financial audit as proof of FAMU's progress under Ammons.
Board chairwoman Carolyn Roberts quickly dismissed the request, saying such a move would be premature. Roberts said lawmakers and taxpayers deserve to see the results of the task force's work, including a report that is due to the Legislature this spring.
Privately, some board members were angry at Lawson's suggestion. They say the financial and operational problems are too deep-rooted and long-running to fix within a matter of months.
For example, Ammons has hired a new law school dean, and the most recent bar passage rates are an improvement from recent years. The pharmacy college, while still facing scrutiny from accreditors, just saw 100 percent of its graduates pass the national licensing exam - with scores above the state and national average.
Yet a grade-changing scandal, the scope of which remains to be seen, is the subject of a recently opened federal investigation. Enrollment is still falling, and FAMU's graduation rate is among the worst in the state.
Board of Governors member Lynn Pappas, the task force leader, urged cautious optimism.
"Certainly, they are to be commended," Pappas said. "But we need not to overreact to the good news we're seeing."
To get off probation, FAMU officials must prove to the SACS commission that they are no longer in violation of 10 accrediting standards:
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.