FAMU Students Return to Classes With School in Turmoil
After a year of scandals, investigations and financial difficulties at Florida A&M University, interim president Dr. Castell Bryant is intent on restoring the school’s respect.
Since she took over the school in January, Bryant’s been faced with a slew of problems. The athletics program conceded nearly 200 rules violations, two professors were collecting paychecks while working full time out of state, the National Science Foundation investigated misuse of grant money and more.
“For the first two or three months here, I did not get out of my car one morning that I did not have a new crisis waiting for me,” said Bryant. “I’ve really, really been bogged down with trying to fix the financial things that were already pointed out and were at a crisis level.”
Following dynamic growth through the 1990s when Dr. Frederick Humphries served as president, the last few years have been painful. Bryant believes the 2005-06 will be a make or break year at the state’s only public historical Black college and she’s determined not to see it break.
There has been plenty to fix. Bills were delinquent, some administrators were paid late because of accounting errors, and the former football coach was told to stay home last fall because there wasn’t enough money to recruit players.
The National Science Foundation threatened in April to stop all its federal grants to Florida A&M if it didn’t quickly solve its financial problems. The school eventually reached a settlement.
Accompanying the troubles has been declining enrollment. About 9,750 students are signed up for classes this fall — well below the high-water mark of some 13,000 less than a decade ago.
Her take-charge style has ruffled feathers among some faculty and at least one of the school’s trustees.
“We’re actually witnessing a regime change,” said Trustee Barney Bishop. “We’re replacing one clique of people with another. Who knows if they’re better?”
A 1970 graduate of the school, Bryant, took over at Florida A&M after another alumnus, Dr. Fred Gainous, was fired after little more than two years as president.
Bryant’s decision to hire Dr. Debra Austin, the politically connected chancellor of the State University System, as Florida A&M’s provost is one of the moves that infuriated Bishop.
“There is absolutely no way an interim president has the authority to bind the hands of a future permanent president,” said Bishop, who likes Austin, but not the way she was picked.
Bryant, however, enjoys the backing of Gov. Jeb Bush, who hailed Austin’s selection.
“It’s the president’s prerogative to hire his or her team in consultation with the Board of Trustees,” Bush said.
For as many changes as she’s made, Bryant still has concerns.
“This year will determine the future of this university,” she told faculty members earlier this month.
Among her worries is a pending 2008 assessment from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, particularly since the university is still trying to resolve some shortcomings pointed out by SACS in a 1998 evaluation.
The NCAA is expected to come down with penalties in October for nearly 200 violations in the athletic department, albeit many are of the secondary nature.
“It will take us a good solid two or three years for us to get to the level where we need to be,” Bryant said.
Gibson said the turbulence has a way of uniting everyone.
“It brings the students together and (makes) the administration and alumni work harder to make this institution better,” he said.
— Associated Press
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