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FAMU leader: Worst is over

But even as the ship is righted, the president fears state funding cuts.

By Ron Matus, Times Staff Writer
Published March 12, 2008


Good timing is not on FAMU's side.

Mounting evidence suggests Florida A&M University is cleaning up the fiscal mess that has tarred its reputation over the past five years. But now, new storm clouds are rolling in - and this time, they're related to state funding.

FAMU president James Ammons told the St. Petersburg Times editorial board Tuesday that given the state's deteriorating economic picture, it's likely FAMU will have to cut 8 to 10 percent from its budget next year. That's on top of 4 percent cuts this year.

"If it went to 10 percent, we're talking about $12-million," Ammons said. "And there is no way that I could say to you or to anyone else that we will be able to maintain the quality of the overall academic experience for our students if we have to take an 8 to 10 percent cut."

Ammons' visit to the Times came as part of a marathon, four-day bus tour to hand out scores of academic scholarships and revive sagging enrollment. The tour began Saturday in Pensacola and Dothan, Ala., and was set to end Tuesday night in Sarasota.

FAMU's enrollment fell to 11,562 last fall - down from a peak of 13,070 in 2004 and the lowest since 1997, when Time magazine named the historically black university its college of the year. The dropoff has coincided with a wave of highly publicized problems, including blistering audits, rampant factionalism and allegations of cronyism.

But Ammons said the worst is over.

In December, FAMU received its first positive financial audit in years. And last week, the state task force that was formed to oversee its finances turned in a highly complimentary report to Gov. Charlie Crist and state lawmakers.

"We think we've turned a corner," Ammons said, crediting new leadership in virtually every major administrative position.

Ammons said recent developments have boosted campus morale and brought a swagger back to alumni. But he also said it will take time for people outside FAMU to realize things have changed for the better.

"We understand there are going to be people who are going to doubt that Florida A&M is fixed," he said. "But it's real. We've put solid professionals in place ...to sustain what we've done over the last few months."

Hurdles remain. The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools - the regional body that accredits FAMU and other Florida universities - put the school on probation last June, and in December extended the probationary period for another six months. SACS officials are set to visit FAMU again in two weeks.

Meanwhile, a cloud continues to hang over FAMU's fledgling law school. Established with $40-million in state money, the Orlando-based College of Law has yet to gain full accreditation and has been beset by problems apart from the main campus, including persistently low bar passage rates, an exodus of top students and bitter faculty infighting.

Ammons said bar passage rates at North Carolina Central University, where he served as chancellor before taking the helm at FAMU, rivaled those of Duke and the University of North Carolina. He expected FAMU's new law dean, LeRoy Pernell, who officially began work in January, to up FAMU's rates and recruit top-flight faculty.

"We are hoping to be able to close the deal on several of these faculty members within the next few weeks," Ammons said. "You're going to see the quality of the faculty just spiral under the leadership of Dean Pernell."

Ron Matus can be reached at matus@sptimes.com or 727 893-8873.