New FAMU President James H. Ammons Keeps Focus on Black Males

Jubilation spread across Florida A&M University when officials announced that Dr. James H. Ammons would return to lead his alma mater’s turnaround effort. When he left his post as FAMU provost and vice president of academic affairs to become chancellor of North Carolina Central University in 2001, FAMU basked in national renown for rivaling Harvard and Stanford in recruiting the most National Achievement Scholars.

Now, as FAMU president, Ammons faces unprecedented solvency and credentialing crises. A few weeks before Ammons took office in July, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools put FAMU on a six-month probation for myriad administrative lapses, including $39 million in unaccounted-for expenditures and missing employee paychecks.

However, numerous FAMU officials cite Ammons’ successful turnaround job at NCCU in declaring him the right man for the top leadership position. Ammons is credited with reversing years of fiscal mismanagement at NCCU, delivering a string of clean state audits and raising enrollment 50 percent during his six years as chancellor.

Since Ammons departed FAMU in 2001, enrollment has fallen from more than 13,000 to less than 12,000, so he has an eye towards boosting enrollment, particularly of Black males. Raised by a single mother of modest means, Ammons has a keen awareness of the challenges Black males face and has shepherded a number of initiatives at FAMU and NCCU aimed at increasing the recruitment and retention of at-risk minority males. Ammons speaks to Diverse about his plans for one of the larger historically Black universities.

DI: There’s been a host of data indicating that the population of Black males in colleges has declined in recent years. What are the numbers at FAMU?

JA: If you were to go back as recent as 1980, Black men in college outnumbered Black men behind bars by a ratio of more than 3 to 1. Now, there is an estimate that for every African-American male who receives a college degree, 240 will enter the penal system — it’s a crisis. Here at FAMU, we have examined our numbers and we’re about 60 percent female, 40 percent male.

We have really two areas in the university where men actually outnumber women: agriculture and engineering. And when we look at an area like pharmacy — one of the most lucrative professions and one of the signature programs here at FAMU — it’s 70 percent women, 30 percent male.

DI: What initiatives are you planning to boost male enrollment on campus?

JA: We are beginning now to work with elementary, middle and high schools here in Tallahassee and across the state, focusing our efforts on African-American males. We’re beefing up our academic advisement with the goal of improving overall retention and graduation, but working especially hard to catch African-American males before their situation becomes a crisis.

We have always been successful in ROTC. We’ve had one of the largest battalions among HBCUs and now we’re looking at ways to enhance the ROTC program by making those partial scholarships from the military full scholarships so we can attract additional African-American males. Florida A&M offers over 100 undergraduate majors, so we’re very comprehensive at the undergraduate level, and that’s one of the things that makes us so attractive. We’re still over 11,000 students, even with the issues that we have.

DI: In your experience, has the debate over hip hop affected faculty engagement with male students?

JA: I can tell you that phenomenon is real. In fact, when we were trying to recruit faculty to be a part of the Hip-Hop Initiative at North Carolina Central, traditional music faculty were totally against it. A traditional music faculty member, who happened to be a White female, joined the faculty in teaching this class on hip hop. In the beginning, it was very uncomfortable for her with her colleagues, but after the initiative got under way, and they saw the success and popularity of the courses, they sort of changed. But what you have, though, are far too many faculty members who judge a book by its cover.

There was a National Achievement Scholar that I recruited to the university, and he wore a do-rag and big pants. And if you didn’t know him, or if you didn’t have an appreciation for the young African-American culture in terms of dress and appearance, you would not have seen him as a National Achievement Scholar, probably not as a college student. But we always talked about making certain that we don’t shut off opportunities to our young people based on their appearance. We should be the last people to discriminate against anyone for anything, given the history of the African-American people in this nation.

DI:What’s the role of higher ed institutions in helping develop atrisk young men who have come from failing schools and troubled homes?

JA:Many of our institutions have been thrust into the role of filling a void that the family, in earlier years, had the responsibility for. It’s a reality. Some of the work of [Dr. Jawanza] Kunjufu is saying we are now living in a fatherless society, where fathers are rare in many households, and, therefore, our institutions are having to make up for some of the shortcomings of the family, and it’s real.  

Here at Florida A&M, we try our best to expose our students through our programs and through our distinguished lecture series to African-American males and women who have succeeded against the odds. HBCUs are really the repositories of African-American culture, and there are so many things that are going on in our culture today that are not a part of African-American culture from a historical standpoint. I think it’s important for us to continue to have these kinds of programs to strengthen students and expose them to that history and contemporary figures who are making a difference against the odds.

–David Pluviose

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