More than half the members of the Board of Trustees for Florida A&M University have been appointed in the last six months, while questions have circulated over the future of university President Elmira Mangum -- and those questions could soon come to a head.
A special trustees' committee on presidential evaluation is slated to review Mangum on June 9. The proceeding, scheduled for the day before the full Board of Trustees meets, comes at a key time. Board members have to make a decision on the future of Mangum’s three-year contract by the end of June.
The contract decision comes as FAMU fights to adjust to headwinds both internal and external. The university is still attempting to recover from a student’s 2011 hazing death and subsequent probation through 2013 by its accreditor, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges. It’s struggling to adjust to dropping enrollment and new state performance funding model that many see as favoring larger, more prominent institutions. And it’s attempting to forge a path forward at a time when the deck seems to be stacked against historically black colleges and universities.
Mangum’s backers have already mobilized for her, saying in a petition that failing to renew her contract would destabilize an institution that’s been through a whirlwind of two other presidents and three interim presidents since 2001. But even some new board members remain skeptical, and public statements are widely being interpreted through the lens of the president versus the board.
Recent history clearly shows cause for tension. In October, Mangum narrowly survived two attempts to fire her at an emergency board meeting. Kelvin Lawson, who was vice chairman of the Board of Trustees at the time, first moved to fire her with cause. The motion failed 7 to 5. Another vote to fire Mangum without cause came up short when the board deadlocked 6 to 6.
Those votes came after Mangum was accused of improperly spending nearly $400,000 on renovations to the FAMU president’s home and improperly using funds for a cabinet member’s bonus. Mangum argued at the time that the work on the president’s home was in motion before she took office. She said a bonus given to the university’s provost was mistakenly paid for with the wrong funds -- Florida law does not allow for bonuses funded by appropriations. But the mistake was corrected once it was discovered, Mangum said.
The votes were far from the end of tensions between the president and board, though. Mangum has continued to be criticized for poor communication with trustees. Many trustees were miffed when the president demoted her vice president for finance and administration in March. She’d met with the board shortly before the move, but members said they hadn’t been informed of the change. To many of Mangum's supporters, the quibbling about her personnel decisions amounts to micromanaging by board members.
Then at the beginning of May, trustees in the special committee on presidential evaluation took issue with Mangum’s goals as not being measurable. That prompted Mangum to say she was unclear about trustees’ expectations. Mangum subsequently asked to meet with the panel again, setting up the critical June 9 committee date.
The tensions have persisted even though eight of FAMU’s 13 trustees are new in the last six months, as Florida Governor Rick Scott and the Florida Board of Governors moved to remake its composition. At least one Florida Board of Governors member has said new trustees were chosen to help wipe away a past filled with allegations of board dysfunction.
But in May, Lawson -- the trustee who led the charge to fire Mangum -- became interim FAMU Board of Trustees chair after the Florida Board of Governors replaced trustee Cleve Warren. Warren was seen as an important supporter of Mangum.
Then in the Tallahassee Democrat on May 28, Gregory Clark, the president of FAMU’s national alumni association, penned an op-ed backing Lawson for the permanent chairmanship. Some interpreted his words as indicating he opposed Mangum.
“Lawson has demonstrated an ability to lead in the face of significant adversity, including matters related to the president’s office,” Clark wrote. “I believe, if it is possible, that he will be the chair who can finally achieve some progress regarding the president’s evaluation, which has made his board tenure a constant challenge.”
Clark later said he was not writing to comment on Mangum’s tenure. He said he wanted to support Lawson because he was one of two FAMU graduates on the Board of Trustees.
“He’s the longest-serving trustee we have,” Clark said, according to the Tallahassee Democrat. “Having a trustee who’s been there awhile will add some stability to the board. I think it’s important to look at the makeup of the board. If Kelvin is not retained, the governor might not put another FAMU alum on the board.”
At the same time, Mangum’s backers have put together an online petition objecting to what they see as a push to remove her. It also argues FAMU would be destabilized if Mangum is removed.
“FAMU's revolving door of permanent and interim presidents created an unstable environment at the university since the departure of our beloved Dr. Frederick S. Humphries in 2001,” the petition said. “Since 2001, FAMU has had six presidents (three permanent and three interim), and this instability led to two probation periods by SACS, the suspension of the Marching 100 and an erosion in the FAMU brand because of the negative media that has followed FAMU in those years.”
The petition drew parallels between political fighting over another HBCU, South Carolina State University, which in 2015 legislators attempted to close for two years.
“Florida Governor Rick Scott, the Florida Board of Governors and some members of the FAMU Board of Trustees want to destabilize FAMU just like Republicans did in South Carolina,” the petition continued.
The petition, addressed to Lawson, the Florida Board of Governors and other public officials including the governor, had nearly 1,000 signees as of Sunday.
Lawson did not return a request for comment. But one of FAMU’s new trustees, Matthew M. Carter II, said there is no stealth campaign to undermine FAMU or Mangum.
“I can tell you what I’ve seen -- none of that is occurring now,” said Carter, an attorney and business consultant who was appointed to the board in December. “I personally have a vested interest in the university to survive. My son graduated from there. My daughter is over there now, working on her M.B.A. I have skin in the game, so I’m not trying to destroy.”
The board has enough new members that its relations with the president are a clean slate, said Carter, who is on the special committee on presidential evaluation. He said he’s most interested in FAMU’s graduation rates, student loan debt and other metrics.
Those metrics are important in Florida, where a performance-based funding model has been in place for more than two years. The model aims to reward high-performing and improving institutions based on a limited number of metrics. For FAMU, 10 measured metrics include the median wages of bachelor’s graduates employed full-time in Florida, the cost per bachelor’s degree, the six-year graduation rate for first-time-in-college students, the percentage of students with Pell Grants and the percentage of funding coming from external sources.
Based on those criteria, FAMU was the fourth-lowest-scoring institution in the 2016 performance funding model of 11 ranked public universities. FAMU was among the three lowest-scoring universities last year and was tied for seventh lowest the year before. The three lowest-performing institutions in a given year do not receive new state performance funding and risk losing a portion of their recurring funding, meaning they stand to lose millions of dollars. FAMU received the top score available for percentage of undergraduates with a Pell Grant. However, only one institution, Florida State University, didn't receive top marks, a key point of contention for critics who say the performance criteria is set up to minimize the strengths of institutions like FAMU. At the same time, critics would say strength in one category does not offset weakness in others.
Given the stakes, FAMU’s board needs to be able to consider replacing a president that isn’t right for the job, even against the backdrop of many changes at the top in recent years, Carter said. Turnover isn’t necessarily worse than having the wrong person in the wrong spot, he said.
Asked whether Mangum was the right president for FAMU at the moment, Carter deferred.
“I am going to have to answer that question,” he said. “I can tell you this: I came on the board in December very enthusiastic and thinking that was possible. Now, where I am now, I’m not so sure that’s possible.”
Mangum said that she’s been open and working well with the board.
“I have a predominantly new board, and every member I have talked to has been open, and we are communicating regularly on issues,” she said. “I think my relationship with the existing board members is good. I don’t have anything to complain about.”
The president pointed out that FAMU scored highly on performance-based metrics that measure how well it improved for the most recent year of the state performance-funding model. It recorded the highest possible score -- 10 -- in categories for median average wages of undergraduates employed after graduation, academic progress rate and graduate degrees awarded in areas of emphasis.
FAMU did, however, record scores of zero in several metrics, including its six-year graduation rate. FAMU’s six-year graduation rate has recently been in the 40 percent range. It was 38.6 percent in 2014-15, down 0.7 percent. But the administration points out that Mangum has only been on campus for two years. FAMU's full-time, first-time-in-college retention rate has risen from 81 percent in 2013-14 to 85 percent in 2015-15.
“What we have had enough time to do is identify and do the assessment of many other changes that are needed to transform us into a best-in-class university,” Mangum said. “My students are motivated, and I think that’s the most important part of offering a quality education.”
Looking forward, Mangum is proposing a new strategic plan to the board next week. She hopes for a contract extension so she can see it through.
“That’s a petition the board has to make,” she said. “I think we’ve made significant progress, and I think we’ve outlined a plan that will continue to move the institution forward. I’m hopeful that I will be a part of that effort.”
Repairing relationships between boards and presidents is possible, said Alvin Schexnider, senior fellow with the Association of Governing Boards, a former chancellor of Winston-Salem State University and the author of Saving Black Colleges.
“It depends on what issues there are and the personalities involved,” Schexnider said. “It could be just that people need more information. They need time to repair relationships. Of course, there has to be a willingness to work on improving relationships.”
If board members are not happy with an institution’s performance, the easiest course of action can be to call for a change in the presidency, Schexnider said. But that has plenty of drawbacks. Importantly, it’s increasingly hard for institutions of all types to draw leaders who are suited to challenges on the table -- especially when controversy has driven prior turnover.
It’s at least as much of a challenge for HBCUs. And for HBCUs, the margin for error is slimmer, as they struggle against larger institutions to attract top students and face steeper financial pressures. The challenges can be compounded further at public HBCUs, because state legislatures are looking hard at graduation and retention rates.
“I think a number of HBCUs, quite frankly, are challenged by governance, which has taken on, I think, increasing importance as legislatures and public institutions in particular have to meet certain metrics,” Schexnider said.
All that pressure can add up to infighting, which ultimately distracts from the college or university’s mission.
“If the board is distracted by a lot of stuff, if the president is distracted by a lot of stuff -- whether it’s coming from the state Capitol, from the alumni, from the board -- where do you focus on these very heady issues that speak to the long-term sustainability of the institution?” Schexnider said. “That’s why I think it’s so important for the president and the board to have a good working relationship.”
While HBCUs may have their own flaws, it’s important to remember that they face major inequities in funding, support and historical treatment, according to Marybeth Gasman, a professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania and the director of the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions. Boards should focus on raising funds and setting broad institutional policy, she wrote in an email. Micromanaging is a distraction.
“I am particularly troubled by the treatment of black women in the role of president,” Gasman wrote. “We have a wonderful cadre of black women at HBCUs right now, and I don’t see a lot of support for their efforts. These are impressive people, and they should be given the opportunity to lead.”
Other indicators at FAMU are headed in different directions. Total head-count enrollment was about 10,000 in the fall, down from more than 13,000 in the fall of 2011. Preliminary spring enrollment was just 9,084.
Yet in 2014-15, the percentage of FAMU’s alumni donors -- the number of donors divided by the total number of alumni -- spiked to 8.9 percent, up from 3.3 percent. That was the highest since 2010-11, when it was 9.7 percent.
Mangum wants FAMU to turn into a model under her leadership. HBCUs and other minority-serving institutions have an opportunity to educate students who aren’t in the top tiers of their high school classes and who don’t come from the wealthiest neighborhoods, she said.
In many ways, that’s a focus on a segment of education that’s been overlooked in Florida and other parts of the country.
“As we and society move toward excellence and providing education to top achievers, the focus has been lost on those that are in the middle,” Mangum said. “We are not having conversations about what happens to the middle. I’d like to talk a little bit about what happens to those who aren’t in the middle and also have the capability to be successful.”