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FAMU in limbo 6 more months
The school keeps its accreditation but stays on probation.
By SHANNON COLAVECCHIO-VAN SICKLER, Times Staff Writer
Published December 12, 2007
[Daniel Wallace | Times]
James Ammons says he remains optimistic about FAMU.
It's not a defeat. But it's also not the victory Florida A&M University administrators wanted.
The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools on Tuesday extended FAMU's probation, giving the nation's largest historically black institution another six months to fix financial management and leadership problems.
New FAMU president James Ammons, consumed by the sanction since he returned to his alma mater in July, had hoped to leave the accrediting body's meeting in New Orleans without the cloud of probation hanging over him.
FAMU officials had even made tentative plans for a party on the Tallahassee campus.
"This decision was very disappointing in light of our efforts," said Ammons, a former longtime Southern Association of Colleges and Schools member. "We did everything humanly possible in the last five months to turn this situation around."
But the outcome of Tuesday's meeting could have been worse.
The organization's 77-member Commission on Colleges had the option of stripping FAMU's accreditation, which would have been devastating. An unaccredited institution can't get federal financial aid for its students, and the value of a degree plummets for its graduates.
As it stands, FAMU is still accredited and has until June to come into compliance with nine standards for financial stability, management and leadership.
"Even with this decision, we will remain optimistic about FAMU's future and continue the steadfast pursuit of excellence," Ammons said.
He told reporters he believes the commission extended FAMU's probation partly because the group did not review the state audit of FAMU finances released Friday afternoon - by which time commission members were already in New Orleans for their annual meeting.
The 2006-07 financial audit, FAMU's best in years, found the university has fixed or partially corrected 13 problems from an earlier audit of 2005-06 finances.
The latest audit did find seven new areas of concern for the budget year ending in June, when interim president Castell Bryant led FAMU. But they were less egregious than in previous years.
Dr. Belle Wheelan, president of the Commission on Colleges, conceded that the timing of the audit's completion might have factored into FAMU's extended probation.
"Because without the audit we have no way to confirm the numbers the university is giving us," she said.
It's not unusual for the accrediting organization to extend a university's probation, especially if the commission sees progress but feels there is room for improvement and more complete financial records, Wheelan said.
"We don't like to put universities on sanctions any longer than we have to. But we also like to give them time to respond."
FAMU trustees chairman Bill Jennings, a 1969 FAMU graduate, was disappointed in the decision.
"But I still think there has been a tremendous amount of work, and we are getting a lot of positive comments on our progress," Jennings said.
He said he is surprised the association didn't remove the probation altogether, given commission members' positive comments after a three-day visit to campus in October.
Commission members noted FAMU's "remarkable progress" and "strong campuswide commitment to addressing the concerns."
FAMU student body president Monique Gillum, 21, of Gainesville said the extended probation "does not by any means reflect how far we've come" under Ammons.
"We'll continue to make sure we're in line with what it is SACS wants us to do," she said. "But I am very comforted with the state of things right now. Just walking around campus, you can feel the winds have changed."
Even with better morale and more balanced bookkeeping, the 120-year-old university perched on Tallahassee's highest hill has many obstacles to climb.
A scathing state operational audit released this past spring found 35 problems involving millions of dollars in questionable expenses, shoddy bookkeeping and lost inventory.
The board that oversees Florida's 11 public universities formed a task force to review FAMU's financial problems and needed fixes, and the group's report is due to legislators in March.
Federal investigators are looking into a grade-changing scandal. And the law school in Orlando and the pharmacy college in Tallahassee are trying to satisfy their respective accrediting bodies.
A 'to-fix' list
When Ammons arrived, he quickly put together a team of administrators and crafted a lengthy "to-fix" list based on the concerns of the accrediting organization and the state auditor general. The list ranged from fixing payroll problems to better controlling research expenses and the use of grants.
In Ammons' first five months, he has hired a law school dean; named a chief financial officer, information technology guru, and athletic director; and is close to hiring a provost and football coach.
The pharmacy college, while still facing scrutiny from accreditors, just saw 100 percent of its graduates pass the national licensing exam.
Still, trustee Jennings conceded: "We have more work to do."