What’s in FAMU’S FUTURE? With Its Leadership in transition, Will the country’s top producer of Black undergraduates sustain its momentum ?
By Cheryl D. Fields
s unsettling as it can be, change is one of the inevitabilities of the human condition. It can present torrents of unimaginable horrors as easily as it can serve up blue skies of opportunity. Sometimes these phenomena occur simultaneously. The gusts of change that have rocked Florida A&M University in 2001 might paralyze another institution. But FAMU is in hurricane country, where people are used to weathering storms.
The changes that have put FAMU in flux began last year, when Gov. Jeb Bush signed into law a new education governance system for the state (see Timeline, pg. 22). The plan aims to create a “seamless” education system that emphasizes accountability and synergy between higher education and the lower grades. But by January, as Florida was still reeling from a national election scandal that drew unprecedented media attention to the state, the threads at FAMU appeared to be unraveling.
To begin, the first and only African American system chancellor, Adam Herbert, announced his resignation. Under the new governance system his position was scheduled to phase out July 1 anyway, so the resignation came as no surprise. But within a couple of weeks, the university community learned that President Frederick S. Humphries and Provost James H. Ammons also would depart before the end of the term. Immediately, rumors began to swirl as people speculated about the causes for the resignations. Ammons’ was easy to explain, since he was offered the presidency at North Carolina Central University. Humphries maintained that his own decision to leave had been in contemplation for two years. Still, skeptics wondered whether he was being pushed out.
In the months that followed, three of the institution’s schools — the new law school, the engineering college and the school of business and industry — also made headlines. Not all of the news was good (see Timeline, pg. 22). Meanwhile, when the outgoing board of regents realized they couldn’t conduct a thorough presidential search before their terms expired, they decided to leave the task for the new board of trustees. They asked Humphries to stay until the end of the summer, which he agreed to do.
The winds of change seem to have gathered so fast and furiously around the Florida Panhandle that people are now wondering what the future holds for the nation’s leading producer of African American undergraduate degree recipients.
“The whole town and FAMU are up in the air,” says Dr. Ching-Jen Chen, dean of the engineering college that FAMU shares with Florida State University. “Everyone is concerned about what is going to happen.”
Board of Concerns
Roosevelt Wilson, a FAMU journalism professor and publisher of Tallahassee’s local Black newspaper, says based on discussions he has had with faculty members and students, people seem less concerned about the university’s long-term well-being than they are about the immediate future.
“I’d say this is a period of uncertainty,” Wilson says. Some of that uncertainty was put to rest June 15, when Gov. Jeb Bush named the new Florida A&M board of trustees. The 13-member board includes five FAMU alumni, media magnate Cathy Hughes, BellSouth President Joseph P. Lacher and former president of Prairie View A&M Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Julius W. Becton Jr., among others (see Trustees, pg. 24).
“I think the governor gave us a good board,” Humphries says. “In my judgment, we didn’t have much advocacy in the (previous system). We now have 13 people who will be working in the interests of FAMU.”
Most people interviewed for this article said they are glad to see the new board in place, but a few worry that Humphries and the FAMU old guard may have too much influence on the trustees. Dr. Castell Bryant, one of the new trustees and president of Miami-Dade Community College North Campus, was among those who shared some of these concerns, initially. Even before the board’s first meeting, she got wind of an effort afoot to ensure that the new chair was a FAMU insider.
“I was uncomfortable with that because we have a number of people on the board who are not FAMU graduates,” she says. “They were appointed because of their strengths and what they had to offer to the board.”
In the end, FAMU alumnus and former student government president Art Collins was elected as chairman. Current FAMU student body president Andrew Gillum, who also sits on the board, made the nomination. It was the only one offered.
Gillum, a senior, admits that Collins’ status as a FAMU alumnus and a former student government president were factors in his decision. But he also nominated Collins because he was convinced the lobbyist could do the job.
“He has what it takes,” Gillum says. “He has the past experience at lobbying and working on both sides of the (political) aisle. We need that now, especially in this political environment.”
Collins, a 1982 graduate whom Humphries describes as “young” and “dynamic,” cut his negotiating teeth working for various Florida lawmakers before launching his own consulting firm in 1990.
Bryant says her problem wasn’t with Collins personally, but rather with the principle of excluding the non-FAMU graduates from consideration. “I was uncomfortable with saying, ‘because you didn’t graduate from FAMU you can’t be chair,’ ” she says.
These and other developments have made jittery onlookers question the new board’s independence. Adding to the concern is a new set of procedures for getting on the board’s agenda. It requires the applicant to get clearance from Humphries before the request is passed along to Collins for a final say on who gets to speak. Moreover, Humphries has appointed the former vice president of university relations, Dr. Dorothy P. Williams, as university liaison to the board.
“It seems to me that FAMU is playing too big a role in shaping this board,” Wilson says. “I think the input of the university is essential, but … it seems like the university is running the board.”
Humphries’ Big Shadow
That type of circumspection also is fueled by what folks know about Humphries’ future plans. As is common for long-sitting presidents, Humphries will continue to receive a salary from the university after his resignation and has contemplated taking a year’s sabbatical leave. Though rumors abound about him being the likely next president of the Washington-based National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education (NAFEO), he says that arrangement has not been finalized. In the meantime, he plans to relocate to Orlando, Fla., in January, where he’ll conduct education policy research and write about ways to expand HBCU participation in the National Science Foundation and other research opportunities. He also has agreed to play an ongoing role in fund raising for the new FAMU law school.
Despite the wariness of a few, many in the FAMU community welcome Humphries’ decision to remain involved with the institution. Even his critics admit that, during his 16-year tenure, FAMU has been transformed. What was once a small, undistinguished land-grant institution of 4,500 students is now a multi-million dollar learning center, with more than $40 million in federal research contracts and grants, five doctoral programs in 13 concentrations, more than 13,000 students, and a growing reputation for attracting academic stars — at the faculty and student levels.
Looking back, Humphries says he’s pleased with his accomplishments. He is especially proud of winning back the law school and of helping to launch all but one of the university’s doctoral programs (see Matters, pg 21). Plans also are in place to add as many as seven more doctoral programs in the next few years.
“We have the possibility, now, of becoming an extensive research institution,” he says. “All we need to do is start being productive in these doctoral level programs.”
Humphries’ biggest regret is that he wasn’t able to build a sports and recreation facility for the campus. Among other things, having state-of-the-art athletics facilities would help make FAMU even more attractive to male students, he says. Currently, the male/female breakdown on the campus is roughly 40/60.
“We still have a gym from 1960 that was built for a school of 3,000 students. I feel deeply disappointed. It hurt our development in basketball.”
Still, Humphries has done most of what he set out to do and believes this is a good time to move on.
“People want to believe that I was forced out,” he says. “I can’t help that. But I made the decision myself. I wanted to do that because, before I finish my career, I wanted to go on to some other opportunities.”
Those who are sorry to see him go applaud the legacy he is leaving.
“The jewel Fred has nurtured within the state university system today sparkles throughout the nation,” said Herbert, the former chancellor, in a speech commending Humphries several months ago.
FAMU trustee Randall Hanna shares this assessment and says Humphries’ act will be a hard one to follow.
“But whoever comes after him will also have opportunities,” Hanna says.
At press time, the board had yet to reach consensus about the attributes they’ll seek in a new president. Those interviewed said they want someone who can continue the momentum gathered by Humphries, but who possesses strong management skills. Bryant adds that before the board can figure out what they need in a president, they must agree upon a new vision for the university.
“It is very hard to hire someone to lead you when you don’t know where you want to go,” she says.
Collins is confident the university will find a new president before Humphries leaves at the end of the year. He admits the timeline is ambitious, but notes that most people who might consider applying for the job have known about it for months. In his opinion, that’s half the process. The challenges will be combing through the applications and hoping that the person they select can start early next year. Heidrick & Struggles, an international executive search firm, has been retained to conduct the search.
Not all of the board members are as optimistic as Collins that the decision can be made in such a short time. But even the most optimistic agree that if more time is needed, they’ll make the necessary adjustments.
Student reactions to all of the changes underway at FAMU are varied. For Thurgood Marshall Scholarship winner Veronica Gray, a junior economics major from New Paltz, N.Y., a main concern is that the new president be as good a representative of the university as Humphries has been.
“In my day-to-day life, nothing (major) has changed,” Gray says. “The university is growing and it is changing, but in a good way. The only thing I’m worried about is the new president.”
Gillum says many of the students he has discussed the situation with share this view.
“I have to say, most of the advancements have been made at this institution are because of (Humphries). He recruited a lot of us personally and has helped bring accolades to the institution. The university is now in a position where it can certainly stand. But it is the intangible that the president brings. (Humphries) could speak from the heart and you would be convinced … As a student, I’m more interested in the intangible things, the unquantifiable.”
Breaking with the Past
The reason some faculty and staff are eager for the next FAMU president to have independence from Humphries is that for all he has done to advance FAMU’s reputation and develop the academic and research enterprises, his tendency to micromanage spawned some internal problems.
Dr. Larry Abele, provost of Florida State University describes the Humphries management system as “very centralized.” Consequently, deans and faculty members are somewhat limited in the scope of their decision-making authority. The downside to any heavy-handed management style is that it can foster low morale, leaving people feeling un-empowered, overworked and underappreciated.
Few doubt Humphries has always acted in what he thought were the institution’s best interests. Nonetheless, he periodically clashed with the faculty and his management team.
Not long ago, a faculty member in the journalism department was denied tenure because her doctorate was not in journalism. Nationally, it is quite common for tenured journalism professors to lack the terminal degree; nonetheless, Humphries vetoed the department’s recommendation to grant tenure. The faculty member eventually sued, claiming the university had switched rules on her in mid-process because when she was hired, there was no stipulation about the doctorate requirement. She recently won an out-of-court settlement but also had to agree never to apply for employment at the university again.
“That is the kind of thing that eats at morale,” Wilson says.
Episodes of dissension between Humphries and Dr. Sybil C. Mobley, dean of the School of Business and Industry (SBI), offer other examples. The most recent incident erupted this spring when Mobley asked the former board of regents to have auditors investigate why nearly all of the earnings from SBI faculty chair endowment funds had been spent on student scholarships. Humphries was quoted in the Tallahassee Democrat as saying he had to offer the full-ride scholarships to attract “high-caliber students.” But Mobley contended that the school’s stellar reputation has made such generous scholarships unnecessary, according to the paper.
These days, Mobley refuses to discuss the rift, insisting that it is long past time to move on. She says she is confident that the matter will be resolved and wishes reporters would stop dwelling on it. She also notes that there is no evidence that the current instability at the university is having any effect on her programs.
“It is always a jolt when there is significant change,” she says. “But the whole Florida education system is experiencing it. You don’t feel like you are the only program that is going through it.”
SBI certainly is one of the bright lights at FAMU. In 2000, it produced the fourth largest class of African Americans graduating with bachelor’s degrees in business. At the MBA level, it came in 11th. Today, enrollment at the undergraduate program has topped 1,100, while the graduate program enrolls roughly 1,200 students, Mobley says.
Overall, the dean characterizes the mood at her school as “upbeat” and says, so far, she is “impressed” by the new board of trustees. Collins, the board chairman, is one of her former students.
Dr. Lucy J. Reuben, dean of the school of business at South Carolina State University, shares Mobley’s positive outlook on the future of FAMU’s business school.
“I think that, clearly, FAMU is on sound footing,” Reuben says. “They have, under Dr. Humphries’ presidency, done a good job. There is much positive potential there. We wish it well. We wish all of our HBCUs well.”
The Florida A&M/Florida State University College of Engineering is among the divisions at FAMU most eager for the current tumult to settle. That is because the unique college depends on both institutions for its budget and administrative authority. Even before the new president is selected, Chen, the school’s dean, hopes a new committee composed of three members from each university’s board, will begin sorting out some of the budgeting and management issues that make his job so challenging (see Timeline, pg. 22).
“We are not a totally integrated college yet,” Chen says. “For my part, I have two piles of mail, two e-mails, twice as many meetings as any other dean. All the details of policy, grading — everything is two.”
FAMU and FSU contribute equally to the engineering program budget, but FSU — a larger institution that enrolls more students in the program than FAMU — wants to have a greater say in how the shared budget is appropriated. Under an agreement the two institutions struck in 1987, FAMU currently controls the budget.
“I sometimes tell myself that if we didn’t have administrators everything would run smoothly,” says Abele, FSU provost. Much of the difficulty between the two universities stems from their differing institutional priorities, he says. Then, there are the personalities of the two presidents.
“Fred (Humphries) is a very strong personality,” Abele says. “Our president (Dr. Talbot D’Alemberte) is a strong personality. When Charlie Reed was here as chancellor, he had an easy solution (to their disagreements). He’d get both presidents by the back of the neck, say ‘These are the priorities, don’t you agree?’ “
Abele says the changes at FAMU and throughout the state should ultimately benefit the engineering college.
“This college is a great success,” Abele says, pointing to the institution’s impressive record of graduating women and underrepresented people of color. “We’re not going to let administrative matters harm the efforts of the program.”
Whatever happens in the coming months, one thing is certain: Florida A&M will not be the same without Fred Humphries. When asked what advice he would offer to the next president he said:
“The worst mistake the new president would make is thinking he doesn’t have good people. My advice to him or her would be that, as you come in, realize that there are people here that know what they’re doing. They’ve been a part and parcel of an aggressive pursuit of quality students and creating quality programs. I would listen to what they believe are important things for the growth and development of FAMU as well as have my own ideas.
“Sometimes, what you want to do is throw everyone out and bring in your own people. I think that would be a mistake.”
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com