Castell Bryant: 'FAMU must overcome its chronic weaknesses'
FAMU's embattled interim president offered her most extensive remarks yet on the university's status Friday, while a special state task force overseeing FAMU finances took aim at a school-hired auditing firm.
Despite widespread public perception, FAMU has made progress and "is on sturdier footing than it was when I arrived 28 months ago," interim President Castell Bryant told the task force, which was formed by the Board of Governors last month and met in person for the first time Friday. In a weary but still resolute voice, Bryant said she accepts "some of the responsibility" for the bitter factionalism that has engulfed FAMU during her watch. But she also blamed critics for fighting change and, in the process, spreading "untruths" that have damaged FAMU's reputation. The bottom line: "FAMU must overcome its chronic weaknesses and reconfirm its place on solid ground as one of the proudest institutions of higher learning in Florida."
The BOG formed the task force last month, after another scathing state audit angered lawmakers and seemed to suggest that three years after FAMU's financial problems reached crisis proportions, the university still had not turned a corner. Bryant told the task force that under her watch, the university has made progress on many fronts, "despite the loud and angry comments by dissenters." She also took a stab at the perception that FAMU's glory days were behind it, noting that despite the school's successful and much-publicized recruiting of National Achievement scholars in the 1990s, many of those students did not stick around to graduate. "They came to us," Bryant said. "But we let them down."
After Bryant's presentation, task force members began wading into the highly technical details of FAMU's fiscal health, including a dysfunctional financial software system that has also plagued other state universities. They got frank assessments from some of FAMU's top administrators, including Grace Ali, the school's chief financial officer. She told members that at one point, it took three CPA's to reconcile a single bank account. "We're going to give you the raw truth," she said. "We have a lot of unexplained, system-generated errors."
Task force members also honed in on FAMU's contracts with KPMG, the accounting firm it hired in 2005 to help it get on firmer financial footing. Since then, the university has spent at least $4.7 million, according to task force member Joelen Merkel, who directed pointed questions to KPMG partner Paul Stepusin, who is overseeing the firm's work at FAMU. It was clear that several task force members, notably Merkel and former Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Leander Shaw, were skeptical about whether FAMU got its money's worth. More discussion of KPMG is expected at future task force meetings.
- Ron Matus, state education reporter