Florida A&M University (FAMU) is set today to officially join the crowded field of institutions on the hunt for a new president, when its presidential search committee gathers for its first official meeting.
One person who has ruled himself out of the running is the veteran educator FAMU trustees have turned to for immediate leadership in helping the struggling institution recover from its recent fall from grace and, in the process, restore its tattered standing with the public and boost its appeal to presidential prospects.
Larry Robinson, the 57-year-old FAMU administrator was tapped on short notice last month to replace Dr. James H. Ammons, the FAMU alum whose five year tenure as president was abruptly cut short by the FAMU Board of Trustees.
Robinson, a native of Memphis, Tenn. and its public schools system, attended LeMoyne-Owen College, earned his B.S. in 1979 from Memphis State University and Ph.D. in nuclear chemistry in 1984 from Washington University in St. Louis.
“Nobody said it would be easy,” Robinson said of his new assignment. “I never said that. It certainly will be challenging.”
In a wide-ranging telephone interview this week, Robinson declared himself ready for the challenge, asserting FAMU has a rich legacy and many good staff, faculty and students who can help turn the university’s fortunes around.
“I think at this very critical time in the university’s history, this opportunity allows me a chance to inject a degree of stability,” said Robinson, when asked why he took on the post of interim president. “I’m confident the board will be able to find people so well prepared for the job that a few years from now people will be saying ‘Larry who?’, he added in a humorous tone, seeking to contain any guessing about his wanting the post for the long term.
Indeed there is much that is urgent on Robinson’s to-do list, much of it stemming from the death last fall of a FAMU band drum major who died of injuries inflicted by some fellow band members during a hazing activity. Hazing by physically abusing another person had been widespread throughout the band for years, despite being illegal in Florida and efforts over the years by some school officials to stop it.
The death eventually lead to the suspension through this year of the 400-plus member band, removal of its veteran band director and music department chair (he subsequently retired), retirement of the campus chief of police and the firing of several band instructors. By July, the ordeal cost Ammons his job as confidence in his leadership steadily eroded during the final months of the last school year.
Robinson, who says he doesn’t use the title “Dr.” since “everybody is a doctor” in his field of science, said he will follow through with many of the reform ideas Ammons articulated before being relieved, including hiring an assistant to the president to deal with hazing issues and hiring a compliance officer to ensure the band fully complies with a plethora of new rules governing band conduct. Both are new posts.
FAMU has received more than 30 applications for the each of the jobs, Robinson said, hastening to add “I always ask the question ‘do we have some good ones in there?’”
In addition to the campus police chief, Robinson has a number of other key posts that need to be filled soon, including appointment of a band director and a separate music department chair, as part of a plan to stabilize the university’s leadership.
Robinson was less forthcoming when asked about the future of some of the broad, institutional growth ideas Ammons had advanced. Prior to the band incident, when the university’s major challenged appeared to be steadily declining state support, Ammons was championing several new health care programs for the university among other ideas.
“My emphasis will be on retention and progression of students,” Robinson said, adding he will look at new degree programs “as appropriate.”
State support for the university has fallen by nearly 50 percent since the time he held the FAMU provost’s job between 2003 and 2005, Robinson said, a reality that makes it hard to continue pursuing many big ideas at the moment. “It’s making it very, very difficult. Everything we’re looking at now is budget neutral…One thing for sure,” Robinson said. “We can’t do everything we want.”
The loss of state revenue is hurting FAMU as it is at other state supported institutions in Florida and states, including Louisiana, Ohio, North Carolina, and Tennessee. The hallmark of Ammons’ tenure was a traumatic reorganization of the university that resulted in some small liberal arts programs being dropped, several departments collapsed into one and an overall trimming of budgets.
To help make its budget for the school year starting later this month, FAMU raised its tuition price for this fall by 12 per cent from a year ago. That tuition boost and fallout from the hazing death figure into why FAMU officials expect enrollment for the coming school year to drop by about 500 from last year’s level.
“We have factored that potential in for planning purposes,” he said, when asked about the impact such a drop at a tuition-driven school would have on its operations.
“We don’t want to see that (loss of students and revenue) but we had to be prudent,” in planning for it, Robinson said.
Despite the bleak times at the university, Robinson said he would still recommend it to presidential aspirants, saying the central reason for wanting to lead a university –help impact the education of the next generation – was still front and center at FAMU.
It is for him, for sure, Robinson says, describing the “excitement” seen in the sea of faces of parents and freshman students at the start of each school year. Recalling his own first days of college as a student, he said “helping these students with their apprehension” as they ponder how to navigate college life makes all the work worth it.
“Sometimes you miss the fun part because you spend so much time working on those things that get you to the fun part,” said Robinson, added he’s looking forward to opening FAMU’s door for the next school year in a few weeks. More than 12,000 students are expected to enroll at FAMU this school year.
Robinson, who spent his various stints on leave from FAMU working at Oak Ridge National Laboratories and at the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the federal weather science agency, sounds like a sports fan rooting for his or her favorite team when he talks about teaching and helping others learn what he knows. He talks enthusiastically of being able to help mentor students while at Oak Ridge National Labs. Of his most recent government post at NOAA (he came back to FAMU last November from that post), he expressed just as much excitement about being able to help get a summer science camp for youth funded.
Now that he’s back on campus, he’s angling for time to get back into the classroom, at least a little, while he tackles the larger job of getting FAMU’s ship through these rough waters.
“I want a little more time and will enjoy serving on a dissertation committee or two,” Robinsons said. “I still think I have a few brain cells left.”