Turmoil in Tallahassee

Florida A&M's president and trustees are under the microscope after a series of controversial decisions.
July 6, 2006

It has been a turbulent start to summer at Florida A&M University, where several personnel moves made by the interim president and the response from trustees have drawn criticism from some close to the university, including the president of the alumni association.

Eight professors received termination notices more than a month ago only to learn recently that they would remain on the payroll until further notice. A university trustee has asked Florida Gov. Jeb Bush to conduct an independent investigation into why an inspector general who monitors Florida A&M was placed on paid leave. And some continue to accuse trustees of dragging their feet on naming a permanent president.

All this comes after an academic year at Florida A&M that saw a drop in fall enrollment -- from roughly 13,070 in 2004 to 12,160 in 2005 (after steady increases each fall from 1996 to 2004). A state audit showed that the university ended the 2004-5 academic year with a $2.7 million surplus, but the report was critical of the way the university spends its nearly $400 million budget. 

Still, Challis Lowe, chairwoman of the Board of Trustees, said she has faith in the interim president, Castell Bryant, who has led the historically black university for more than a year.

“It is difficult to change an organization the size of FAMU,” Lowe said. “With change, you encounter resistance. The president is encountering resistance for making decisions that I think are necessary for the university to become re-accredited and continue to survive.”

Florida A&M is up for re-accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools in 2008. Its School of Business and Industry is seeking accreditation from  AACSB International: the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business this fall. The latter accreditation process is what prompted the original dismissal of eight business school faculty members, according to a university spokeswoman, LaNedra Carroll.

The professors, all of whom were non-tenured, were considered by Bryant to be lacking credentials needed for the university to earn accreditation, Carroll said. All were faculty in the college's professional development program, and Carroll said administrators also decided to shift the focus of the program. The moves were not made primarily for cost-cutting reasons, she said.  

The eight faculty members received letters in late May informing them that June 30 was to be their last day with the university, said Bill Tucker, chief negotiator for the faculty in collective bargaining. They were told to clear their offices within five days, he said. Steven Weinberger, executive director of the United Faculty of Florida, called the decision “puzzling.” His office filed a grievance with Florida A&M’s office of the provost, alleging that the lack of warning violated the faculty members’ collective bargaining agreement.

“There wasn't sufficient time given to them," Weinberger said. "There just may be deficiencies in areas, but you don’t fire faculty. You work with them and allow them to receive the certification that is lacking.”

Late last week, after protests from the UFF and members of the Florida A&M National Alumni Association, Florida A&M administrators decided to rescind the termination notices. “The president, provost and all others want to be sure that the faculty members who are affected are treated in a fair and equitable manner," Carroll said. "We are reviewing the proposed changes.”

Tucker, the collective bargaining negotiator who is also a physics professor at the university, said that his office has been made aware that 40 other yet-to-be-identified faculty members --  including some who are tenured -- could be receiving notifications that they must beef up their resumes or face an ouster in the coming months.  No letters have gone out. Mary B. Diallo, president of Florida A&M’s Faculty Senate, declined to comment on the fate of the faculty members.

Alvin Bryant, president of the National Alumni Association, said it is another example of trustees failing to provide proper oversight of the president. “There’s no questions procedures were violated [in the initial firings],” he said. Weinberger said the bussiness school faculty incident is "reflective of a university that is in disarray.”

Carroll said Castell Bryant has done her part to stabilize the university during a difficult transition of leadership. She said the president was not surprised by the state audit and has taken steps to get Florida A&M's financial situation in better order.

The decision of the Rev. R.B. Holmes Jr., a university trustee, to ask the governor to intervene in the inspector general matter has further polarized the campus, the alumni association president said. Michael Brown, the independent watchdog who works with the board's audit committee, told the Tallahassee Democrat after he was put on leave that he was investigating senior administration officials. Carroll said Brown is the subject of a “review,” and that the president doesn’t discuss personnel matters.

Bryant, the university president, and Lowe, the board chairwoman, defended their actions at a trustees' meeting last week.

Alvin Bryant said the trustees should have investigated the president's decision regarding the inspector general internally, rather than calling upon Gov. Bush. He said hundreds of alumni have called him to complain about this issue and others regarding university leadership in recent weeks.  

Alvin Bryant said the board isn’t moving fast enough to find a permanent replacement for the president. “It looks like it’s going to be another year before they get this done,” he said. “Usually it takes six to nine months. This is making it difficult to recruit outstanding students and faculty members, and get quality deans.”

Lowe said recent criticism of the presidential search is unwarranted, and that if people had a problem with the duration of the process, they should have expressed their concerns in March, when the board's search committee announced that it would seek the advice of focus groups of alumni, faculty and community leaders. No timetable has been set for a decision, she said.

Lowe said that a second board member has been assigned to be co-chair of the search committee. “We’ve demonstrated that we are committed to moving forward with the decision,” she said.


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