New FAMU Provost Comes With Controversy
University community disappointed provost position was not advertised
By Marlon A. Walker
With stints as a top administrator at Florida State University and as
chancellor of the State University System of Florida, snagging Dr. Debra Austin to become second in command at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee could be seen as a major coup.
But the president of the FAMU chapter of the United Faculty of Florida, Dr. Bill Tucker, is outraged with the appointment process.
Usually the selection of an administrator is advertised says Tucker, a physics professor. He says by not following the correct process for a selection of this sort, interim president Dr. Castell Bryant denied the FAMU community an opportunity to learn about Austin or the provost opening.
Austin, who has 25 years of experience in higher education, says she and Bryant are working out the specifics of her transition to the school.
“FAMU is an outstanding institution that’s a part of (Florida’s) State University System,” Austin says. “It has the basic ingredients to make it even better. Why not become involved at an institution that has so much going for it?”
The current provost, Dr. Larry Robinson, had been director of FAMU’s Environmental Sciences Institute before he was promoted in May 2003. He will return to the institute as a faculty member.
Dr. Mary Diallo, president of FAMU’s faculty senate and a member of the university’s board of trustees, says a meeting scheduled for Aug. 25 was supposed to give the president an opportunity to explain why she went about hiring Austin without including the FAMU community.
“We need to move forward,” Diallo says, adding that recent changes look to bring more stability to the university.
According to Bryant, a 1970 FAMU graduate, the selection of Austin was easy because, “She was extremely and exceptionally qualified.”
But Tucker says Bryant robbed the faculty of the opportunity to stand behind the provost appointment.
“What’s really upsetting is that this was done without a search or advertising of the position,” Tucker says, mentioning that an interim president selecting a permanent provost was an “unprecedented move.”
According to the Web site of the FAMU chapter of the United Faculty of Florida, the selection was in violation of the hiring plans for the university and the board of governors, which say that the school’s vacant positions must be advertised to keep in line with fair employment practices.
Austin isn’t commenting on the school’s selection process, deferring those questions to Bryant. Bryant, who says her selection of Austin as provost falls in line with the rulings in chapter 6 of the Florida Administrative Codes.
“The decision to hire Austin was within the guidelines for a president to use to function,” Bryant says. Previously, through a university spokesperson, Bryant said the appointment would not be rescinded.
Tucker says the timing of the move is suspect, amidst rumors that Austin has been thinking about throwing her name into the ring for the school’s permanent presidency.
“What a hell of a way to get to the job — through the back door like this,” Tucker says.
Despite the on-campus controversy brought on by the appointment process, Austin says she’s ready to step into her new role at FAMU, hoping to “ensure that graduates of Florida A&M have something positive to say about their experiences at the university.”
In recent months, the school’s faculty has been at odds with several firings initiated by Bryant, including the recent firings of several employees with faculty-union status, which provides protection from firing and layoffs, Tucker says. As to how the faculty reacts to the hiring of Austin, he says nobody knows what to think because they didn’t have the opportunity to hear about her goals and plans for the university.
“The trouble is we don’t know a lot about the choice,” Tucker says. “[Austin] comes in cold with us. We don’t have anything on her. It’s not about Debra Austin, it’s about the process. We don’t know what’s going on. And we’ll do whatever we can to reverse it.”
Bryant says that’s not going to happen.
“I told the faculty that FAMU is in the midst of changes, and that’s why I’m here,” she says. “I was placed here to do what’s in the best interest of the university while I’m here. And that’s what I’m doing.”
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