Getting FAMU Back On Firm Footing
The courtyard outside the state Capitol building was a sea of gold and maroon as chanting students from Florida State University passed out popcorn to passers-by. Inside the building, however, on the 22nd floor, the tasteful sounds of piano and flute playing songs from “Porgy and Bess” were a sharp counterpoint to the blaring band music below.
This was “FAMU at the State Capitol Day,” a day for Florida A&M University administrators, faculty and students wearing green and orange business attire to mingle with and say their thank-yous to legislators, staff and aides. And while the unwelcome appearance of Florida State Seminole boosters on the scene occasioned no little bitterness among the FAMU Rattlers, the intended audience for both displays didn’t appear to have been fooled.
“Florida State got off cheap,” one young woman with a crisp chignon and legislative badge remarked to a companion as she entered the elevator. And indeed the mood, as the crowd listened to the speeches, sipped punch and munched discreetly on servings of Louisiana-style gumbo and spareribs, was upbeat — so much so that it seemed unimaginable that only six months before, Florida newspapers were full of ominous predictions that FAMU stood on the “brink of financial disaster,” as the headline in the St. Petersburg Times read.
Matters were felt to be at so critical a pass in November that the state’s chief financial officer, Tom Gallagher, took the almost unheard-of step of cutting off pay to the FAMU president and 18 top administrators until they turned over crucial financial records that were six weeks late.
The missing millions were later declared “found,” and the allegations of mismanagement have mostly faded from public view. But only seven years after FAMU emerged as an emblem for Black college success with front-page coverage in Black Issues In Higher Education, and College of the Year honors from Time magazine and the Princeton Review, an impression of turmoil lingers, fed by:
•An attempt by the Student Government Association to impeach its president, Larry Rivers III, in fall 2003 — despite the fact that he won the election by a margin of more that 400 votes. The battle became so contentious that Student Affairs Vice President Dr. Patricia Green-Powell had to intervene.
•The university’s flip-flopping on a decision to abandon the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference and become an NCAA Division I-A school. A divided board of trustees voted 7-5 in February to delay the move and return to Division I-AA.
•A contentious review process, from which President Dr. Fred Gainous emerged in April with an “OK” rating from the board of trustees.
•A legal battle whose latest twist is that the former National Alumni Association president, Carolyn Collins got the results of the election that defeated her thrown out.
WHO’S TO BLAME?
Longtime FAMU observers, most of whom would not speak on the record for this story, are divided as to who bears ultimate responsibility for the contentious atmosphere that’s enveloped the campus and its board since the fall of 2003.
Some lay blame squarely at the door of the new president, Dr. Fred Gainous, a FAMU graduate whose lifelong dream was to become president of the university. Twenty months, they say, is long enough to get the institution on a firm footing, and they grumble at Gainous’ failure to live up to the high standard set by Dr. Frederick Humphries, who led the campus for 16 years before taking the helm at the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education (NAFEO) — a position from which, it must be noted, Humphries was recently asked to step down (see Black Issues, May 20).
Others express qualms about the board, a relatively new body, established in June 2001 and then reconstituted in January 2003. They complain that the board is “micromanaging” the university and Gainous, for example, by holding monthly meetings rather than the quarterly ones more common in higher education — or they express suspicions of the strong ties some board members have to Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
Board Chairman James Corbin did not respond to repeated requests for an interview, while other board members contacted for this story either did not respond or said they preferred to let Corbin speak for the body.
“The bottom line is you have a new president and a new board, and both are trying to find their way,” says Roosevelt Wilson, publisher and president of Tallahassee’s Capitol Outlook and a “friend” of FAMU. He’s been on the faculty and served as athletic director from 1980-85. “Anyway you look at it, that’s a recipe for chaos,” he adds.
But if “chaos” it is, Dr. Castell Bryant, president of the Miami Dade College Medical Campus, a former FAMU trustee and current member of the board of governors that oversees Florida’s 11 public campuses, is past the point of being able to listen to any more excuses.
“If a pilot takes a plane up, there could be all kinds of damage done — a hailstorm or even battle — but if the pilot safely lands the plane, then it’s a safe landing no matter how much it’s been damaged during that flight. However, the next pilot to take the plane up has certain kinds of responsibilities. If he takes that plane up without taking the standard professional precautions beforehand and that plane crashes, the pilot in the seat is the one responsible. Not the person who landed it,” she says.
Gainous, on the other hand, is not ready to admit that his flight is in free fall. It’s true, he notes, that “at this current rate, we are operating more tactically”— in terms of responding to crises and negative press — “than strategically. But I believe the board is coming to the threshold of cohesiveness in its understanding of the needs of the university.”
Very soon, he predicts, “we’ll be moving from tactics to strategy.”
A SIGN OF PROSPERITY?
Contrary to the impression one gathers from news reports and the rumor mill, there does appear to be a strategic vision. Gainous’ proposed $251 million capital campaign is expected to kick off officially in the fall. And with multimillion-dollar projects under way at the schools of pharmacy and journalism, the campus hums with activity. Heavy equipment and overturned swaths of bright red clay are everyday sights, and passers-by must shout to be heard over sounds of construction.
For Love Collins III, vice president of development and president of the FAMU Foundation, these are joyful sights. “I’ve been in this business nine years, and any time you see construction, that’s like taking the temperature of an institution. It’s a sign of health and prosperity. You do not get this on a campus that’s not moving forward.”
And there’s much more to come. If the recently passed Florida legislative budget is any measure, a thank-you day at the state Capitol was certainly in order. The new budget provides more than $35 million in capital outlay funds for the university. Some of the big-ticket allocations include $5.6 million for electrical upgrades, technology and infrastructure; $14.4 million for the new teaching gym; and $9.7 million for the relocation of FAMU’s K-12 lab school.
Down in Orlando, moreover, ground has been broken and the foundations laid for FAMU’s new law school and library. “That’s a $31 million project, and we’ve got $27 million in hand for it,” Collins adds.
But the questions must be asked: With a major financial black eye only months behind it, is the institution ready to handle the influx of funds? Can it attract enough support from major donors and alumni to make the capital campaign a success?
Collins is bullish on the university’s chances. “The president’s evaluation came back strong. And as for the finances,” he says, “we’ve bounced back. There were 149 milestones in our action plan, and we’re better than 60 percent there. We’re hiring more staff, doing more interim audits to review our business processes, upgrading equipment. It’s like the president told the board of governors, ‘If we do all this, we’ll never have these problems again.’ “
Wilson notes that the financial crisis was in part a media creation. “When FAMU drops a pebble in the water, it’s reported as a boulder,” he says, explaining that the school endured a solid month of negative headlines over what was essentially a “bookkeeping error,” while, at the same time, news of a $1 million embezzlement at the University of Florida barely made a ripple.
Bryant, however, says that if the media did, in fact, fire wildly at FAMU, the wound suffered by top leadership was a self-inflicted one.
“There was a problem at University of Florida, and that wasn’t the only one. There was a problem at Florida International University, too. But the presidents acted promptly — they were open about the problems; they fired people; they resolved the situations. So I don’t accept that the media is the problem.” Indeed, she adds, it’s the lack of responsiveness and openness that’s the problem.
Openness is, of course, not the hallmark of HBCU university relations. And while Gainous says, “The press was not very kind to us,” he also admits that university relations have been less than crisp.
“We’re looking at beefing up our press functions. FAMU has great stories to tell, but we’ve been preoccupied with pushing a boulder uphill. We’ve had our shoulder to the boulder, so there hasn’t been time to sow the seeds about the good things that are happening on the campus,” Gainous says.
But Wilson believes there are some functions so critical that the president needs to take the time to attend to them. “The president has left his back uncovered in a lot of places,” he says.
For example, Wilson is among those critical of Gainous’ failure to act quickly to assemble a management team accountable and loyal to him. The search for a new provost, for example, took nine months; the search for vice president for fiscal affairs took 10.
Coming from a community college system, Wilson explains, “(Gainous) walked in alone; he didn’t have a team. And that was not because of any restriction placed upon him; he didn’t have anyone to bring. So (Gainous) started cold turkey, looking for an administrative team. And all these months later, he still doesn’t have a chief of staff or a PR person. These are things that place him at a tremendous disadvantage.”
Collins acknowledges that many challenges remain, but he feels strongly that FAMU’s and its president’s darkest days are over.
“I think we as a community are recognizing that divisiveness, at the end of the day, does not advance the institution. And recognizing that, people are more and more willing, in some cases grudgingly, to give up the fighting and to give the new administration a chance,” he says.
And Gainous deserves that chance, Collins says, because “he does have a plan.”
Indeed, ask Gainous about his vision for Florida A&M, and he talks about his desire to improve the institution’s graduation rate, to return to its status as the No. 1 destination for National Achievement Scholars, to increase the number of Ph.D. programs.
But even more important to Gainous, who vividly recalls his days as an undergraduate living at N.B. Young Hall, is the goal of healing the divisions that have wracked the institution he loves.
“We’ve always followed the motto, ‘Excellence With Caring.’ Well, I have another motto that I want to add to that, ‘Creating One FAMU,’ ” Gainous says.
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com