Florida A&M’s new president, James Ammons, Will Try to Save School’s Reputation

TALLAHASSEE, Fla.

Ten years ago, Florida A&M University was on top of the academic world, celebrated as one of America’s top universities after being chosen college of the year by Time magazine and the Princeton Review.

But it’s been almost all downhill since 1997. Dr. James H. Ammons, who took over Monday as president of Florida’s only historically Black public university, has just six months to resolve long-running financial woes that have put his alma mater’s accreditation at risk.

“It would be mission impossible for most people,” says Barney Bishop, who resigned after three frustrating years on the university’s board of trustees.

Ammons is familiar with tough missions: He won praise as North Carolina Central University’s chancellor for calmly handling a racially divisive situation when one of his Black students falsely accused three White Duke University men’s lacrosse players of rape last year.

And Ammons knows FAMU well: He was provost for six years before leaving in 2001, when the latest troubles worsened. The school’s bookkeeping became so sloppy that lawmakers threatened criminal investigations this spring and others talked about closing the school down. Hundreds of employees went unpaid earlier this year.

The situation deteriorated in June, when the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools put the university on probation because of 10 rules violations. Most of the infractions were the result of FAMU’s inability to account for millions of dollars of inventory and some contractual arrangements made without proper approval.

SACS will make a campus visit in September to check on the school’s progress, and then review the sanctions in December. If FAMU loses its accreditation, its students would be ineligible for federal financial aid.

An accreditation expert says the process is intended to help schools improve.

“It’s not like the Department of Agriculture walking into a meatpacking plant looking for things to penalize people on,” says Richard Porter, a spokesman for the Council for Higher Education Accreditation.

But Tallahassee attorney Steve Uhlfelder, who has served on the board of governors that oversees the state’s public universities, says: “If they don’t get that straightened out, who knows what’s going to happen at that university.”

While there has been plenty finger-pointing in recent years about who did what, Ammons is only looking forward.

“We’ll get to the bottom of these issues and get them resolved,” Ammons says. “We’ll work through it as a team.”

Gov. Charlie Crist agrees.

“I’m encouraged about the future,” says Crist, who is counting on improved oversight from the school’s trustees and the board of governors. “Obviously, they can do better, and I believe that they will.”

But if the recent past is any indicator, Ammons won’t have a lot of time. Dr. Fred Gainous was fired as president after only two years. His successor, Dr. Castell Bryant, lasted 29 months, although she was hired as an interim.

These woes have dimmed the glory of the past at the school that produced 1964 Olympic gold medal sprinter “Bullet Bob” Hayes, long known as the world’s fastest human. FAMU is also the alma mater of women’s tennis legend Althea Gibson and the world-famous Marching 100 band.

Pinpointing a genesis for troubles at the school is difficult. Some problems date back more than 20 years, when some students attended classes without paying tuition and had unacceptable delinquency rates on repaying federal loans, a 1983 state audit revealed.

According to Uhlfelder, Former FAMU President Fred Humphries was an imposing, well-connected figure who was adept at keeping critics at a distance. Humphries left in December 2001 to become president of the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education, and things unraveled quickly at the university.

Uhlfelder and Bishop contend that oversight boards treated FAMU gingerly for years because they were concerned about being labeled racially insensitive.

“We probably needed more tough love, but because of the fear of being labeled insensitive we tempered our comments,” says Uhlfelder.

“It has to be accountable just like any other university,” adds Bishop. “[FAMU] can’t be patronized anymore. It can’t be protected.”

Ammons denies those claims.

“I really don’t know what that angle is,” he says. “The state university system and the state of Florida have policies, rules and regulations that apply to all institutions.”

Besides the accreditation problems, Ammons must also decide the fate of the school’s basketball coach, who was suspended with pay in late May after being jailed briefly on a misdemeanor stalking charge.

“It’s certainly a rocky time right now. But that’s not anything new for FAMU, and we’ve always been able to overcome our challenges before,” says Monique Gillum, a 20-year-old Gainesville senior and student government president.

— Associated Press

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