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Course Correction at FAMU

When Dr. James Ammons took the helm of his alma mater, Florida A&M University, he inherited a nationally recognized school facing numerous crises.

Ammons, who served as provost of FAMU during its heyday in the 1990s, knew the school was mired in trouble with the state, having accumulated dozens of state auditor questions about its financial operations resulting in two years of unacceptable state audits. A legislative watchdog task force had even been established out of concern that the school’s fiscal problems were so widespread that the state would have to take over.

To make matters worse, Ammons got news in his first week on the job in July 2007 that FAMU, once recognized as an academic model for other colleges, was being placed on “probation” for six months by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS). The accrediting agency, based in Decatur, Ga., had serious questions about several academic programs at FAMU.

Within a year, the problems Ammons inherited were resolved.

After several months of 14-hour days, a team led by Teresa Hardee, his chief financial officer (who followed him from N.C. Central University, his prior presidential post), cleared financial operations and earned the school a clean bill of health. Meanwhile, Ammons, who had headed accrediting teams for several other schools, swung into action on the SACS issues. Soon, SACS was satisfied and reaffirmed the school’s accreditation.

No sooner had the Rattler’s ship been righted than it began encountering the strong economic headwinds that were suddenly shaking much of the nation’s economy to its core. FAMU and many of its peers around the country, particularly public colleges, began seeing income fall precipitously.

At FAMU, state support has been cut by tens of millions of dollars since Ammons became president. It has reached a point where tuition revenue for the 2011-2012 school year is expected to exceed state aid at FAMU for the first time in the school’s history.

Against this backdrop today, Ammons is championing a major restructuring of the school, marked by retrenchment from many activities and programs offered during its glory days of expansion.

Scores of administrative service employees are being terminated as part of the “new” FAMU plan that is using technology to do the jobs once done by people. Nearly a dozen academic programs, including master’s degree offerings, have been eliminated. Adjunct and part-time faculty are being eliminated. Tuition has been boosted dramatically (15 percent for the second year in a row). Admissions standards have been tightened. A new emphasis is being placed on retention and graduation, not just enrollment. Enrollment hit a record high last fall of 13,277.

“I don’t think anybody expected we would have the sustained downturn in the economy,” Ammons says in a recent telephone interview, reflecting on the newest round of economic challenges facing the school and his roller-coaster ride as FAMU president.

“This was the reward we got for dealing with all the issues when we came in,” says Ammons, who adds that falling revenue, especially state financial support, has forced FAMU to slash its annual budget by steadily larger amounts—7 percent, 10 percent, 12 percent and more—every year since his arrival in 2007. Collectively, he has cut more than $34 million in real costs from his budget in four years, including one 10-percent university-wide cut in expenses.

“There were people who thought we had more magic left, that we would find a way to keep everyone employed and keep everything in place,” says Ammons, characterizing the restructuring decision as a personally painful one. “We went through three rounds [of cuts] and kept every program and employee,” he says. “When the next round came [an 8 percent cut of nearly $8 million for the 2011-2012 budget], all we had left were people. At some point you run out of money [cost-cutting savings] and have to strategically design a future for FAMU that will preserve the institution as a leader.”

It was not an easy sale, as many people who wanted to keep the FAMU tradition intact saw an era ending.

“Some very key people lost their jobs,” says Tommy Mitchell, national president of the FAMU alumni association. Overall, Mitchell echoes others who fear “the quality of service” to students may decline with the restructuring.

“When cutbacks occur like they have to, it will affect the quality of service,” says Mitchell, a 1961 FAMU graduate who worked at the school for 28 years before retiring in 2007. “It is going to affect the quality if we can’t get the government to rescind some of these cuts or we don’t step up.”

Mitchell has been urging alums to give more funds to the school without restrictions on how it must be used.

Indeed, Ammons’ three-part restructuring plan, which is being implemented in stages over the next several years beginning this month, is sweeping. It strongly embraces a results-oriented approach to measuring the value of academic and operational functions, sparing hardly any aspect of the university, save its name and its mascot’s name, the Rattler.

Drawing from the results of a study of its wide range of academic programs, FAMU is eliminating what it calls “low productivity” academic programs, among them the master’s in science education, master’s in social science education, master’s in landscape architecture and the bachelor’s and master’s degree programs in business education. School officials said “single-digit enrollment in the majors over a number of years and similar numbers for graduation were common among the eliminated programs.”

The university also eliminated its School of General Studies, one that allowed underprepared freshmen more time to get a feel for college work and career opportunities during their early years in college before declaring a major. Under the new system, students will be required to declare majors earlier.

Adapting new initiatives designed to assist underprepared, first-time students—similar to efforts being tried at Maryland’s Coppin State and Georgia’s Fort Valley State, among others—FAMU’s new Academic Success Institute will replace the School of General Studies and ostensibly provide more disciplined study routines aimed at ensuring these students get off to a more structured start in college and participate in academic work early and often.

While some programs are being eliminated, the restructuring program is full steam ahead in boosting FAMU’s focus on training in STEM disciplines health and allied sciences.

Ammons acknowledges that some observers and people involved with the university have frowned upon its retreat from many of its traditional offerings. The pushback has been understandable, he says. Still, he insists jumping on the STEM bandwagon and other untested waters, such as a school of dentistry, is the right focus at the right time.

“When you look at the demand in STEM and health sciences, you have to maintain our leadership in these areas,” says Ammons. “Those are where the new jobs are. When you look at competitiveness on a global scale, that’s where we have to be. It’s a strategic decision that has been influenced by the circumstances we are in.”

While many non-tenured teaching jobs are among those being eliminated in the budget ($7.9 million less for the fiscal year that began in July than the budget for the 2010-2011 school year), the biggest job losses are among the ranks of the school’s administrative support staff—the people who keep the school running. Most of the more than 200 jobs being eliminated fall in those ranks. Jobs with redundant functions, like purchasing, human resources paperwork processing, and booking travel arrangements, have been centralized and gone paperless.

“We have to leverage the technology,” says Hardee, who serves as vice president for administration, finance and administrative services at FAMU in addition to her role as CFO. She says the back shop consolidations and conversions to paperless processes are expected to boost administrative productivity by 30 to 50 percent and save the university millions in costs.

Hardee, a certified public accountant Ammons brought to FAMU to help clean up the school’s books and manage its non-academic operations, cautioned that most of the efficiencies that can be achieved through technology have been achieved and that the next round of cuts, if required, are likely to be more painful.

“We’re at a point where we can’t cut anymore,” says Hardee, referring to support and administrative staff reductions. “We’re at our max with efficiency and productivity. The academic area is the next step,” she says, hastening to add she doesn’t relish the thought.

“It will be terrible, devastating,” says Hardee. “If we plan on growing, how do you balance that with a reduced work force? We’re not out of the woods yet,” Hardee says.

Ammons acknowledges there is more tough sailing ahead. Still, he sees this latest course adjustment helping FAMU recover some ground lost in recent years and expand its reach in several ways.

Starting this fall, for example, FAMU will partner with HBCUsOnline to offer three master’s degree programs online. It will mark the school’s first venture into offering degree programs through Internet-based distance learning. Ammons, who helped get accreditation for FAMU’s law school, is also excited about establishing a FAMU dental school. He says such a school will fill a dental education and service void in the state, particularly across northern Florida’s panhandle region where he says dental services are nearly non-existent in some counties.

“It’s tough,” Ammons says of his unexpected role of having to restructure FAMU into something different from what he inherited just a few years ago, significantly different from what it was when he was provost and light-years away from what it was when he was a political science student at the school.

“Every day I think about it,” he says, reflecting on the cumulative cuts of millions from his base 2007 budget plus the loss of $8 million in federal economic stimulus funds. “We’re still making progress,” he says. “It’s just slower.” Mitchell, the alumni leader, shares Ammons’ sentiments.

“The thing that’s important for us now is there’s a major crisis at hand,” says Mitchell, noting that alumni involvement at Black colleges is now more important than ever. “We have to get more involved in the political process to make sure our colleges get the funding they need,” says Mitchell. “It’s going to be important that we give at the level we are capable of, and it’s important that we be held harmless (by the state government) in the cuts. It’s clear to me HBCU grads have to do a better job if we want our schools to be viable.”

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