Florida A&M Halts Presidential Search

The recent decision by Florida A & M University (FAMU) to abruptly halt its search for a new president could delay selection of a permanent top administrator for almost another year, raising the prospect the institution could lose some of its top candidates as a result of the shift in plans, say academic veterans involved in the talent recruitment business.

By the same token, the university may have done minimum damage to the seemingly embarrassing shift of gears, since it never publicly identified the final candidates set for campus interviews this week and was clear about why it announced the halt in the process.

FAMU, which last June severed ties with its embattled president Dr. James Ammons, proudly announced March 14 it was ready to bring in a roster of presidential candidates this week. “FAMU ON SCHEDULE TO SELECT NEW PRESIDENT,” beamed a press release from the university.

A day later, March 15, the university issued a public statement saying the chairman of its board of trustees, Solomon Badger III, had suspended the search effectively immediately, citing ongoing accreditation issues with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS), the principal higher education accrediting agency for colleges and universities across the South.

“This is neither a commentary on the quality of candidates, nor a questioning of the search process,” Badger said in announcing and explaining his decision. He said FAMU had been placed on probation by SACS, its (FAMU’s) “accreditation is at risk” and putting a president in place now would not be a wise move.

“It would be eminently unfair to bring in a new president as FAMU’s accreditation hangs in the balance,” Badger said. “I have full faith that interim President Robinson and his team will succeed in their effort and want to make sure they face no distractions or disruptions.”

Badger’s announcement promptly put on hold the full two-day schedule the university had issued the day before outlining this week’s visits by the presidential prospects.

Several veterans in the higher education academy, speaking on the condition they would not be quoted by name, said Badger’s comments softened the negative impact of the about face. At the same time, it raises the prospects the university could lose some of its top prospects who may have been looking at several of the open positions for president.

“The stronger the candidate is, the more likely you are to lose them,” said one seasoned veteran of candidate placement. That said, the veteran noted, delaying the process “would be perfectly understandable if SACS is involved in anyway. That’s the last thing you want to do is bring a new president in …” with SACS issues unresolved.

FAMU has four accreditation issues pending before SACS, the resolution of which could take the rest of this year, according to the university. A special SACS team site visit to the university is not expected until late summer or early fall. The SACS Commission on Colleges is not likely to act on the university’s compliance reports or site committee’s recommendations until December.

Such a schedule could push the presidential search into 2014, if the presidential search is indeed delayed until the SACS issues are resolved.

Meanwhile, the university has organized nearly a dozen small committees tasked to address various issues raised by SACS in placing the institution on probation. Badger, meanwhile, has asked his presidential search committee and the candidates who were set for interviews to “remain ready” for the process to resume after the university has addressed “these critical issues.”

According to SACS correspondence with FAMU, the agency has questions about the fiscal “integrity” of the institution, citing more than a dozen examples of internal audit reports being submitted to the university’s board without written documentation.

SACS also wanted the university to show evidence it has “qualified administrative officials” in several key posts, including a new position created to address campus hazing. The agency said it has lingering questions about what the university has done to address its questions about “irregularities” in band finances.

SACS also raised questions about whether the university had addressed questions about its overall “institutional environment,” another concern stemming from concerns and past complaints about incidents of student hazing.

FAMU’s effort to rebuild its leadership over the past 18 months has had its troubles. Last fall, just hours before it was set to have a scheduled public announcement of a new director of the university’s famous marching band, last-minute negotiations imploded and a new search was launched. Just recently, the university announced a new list of finalists. Meanwhile, the university is still on the hunt for a campus chief of police, a post vacant for almost a year.

Last month, interim president Larry Robinson filled two key leadership team posts. He appointed a special assistant to the president for anti-hazing and a director of judicial affairs. Both posts are parts of the university’s efforts to address public and SACS questions about whether the university has qualified people in key administration slots.