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Stop gossiping, start respecting



When Florida A&M University law professors were asked what they must do to move the law school forward towards accreditation, they told a professional facilitator they must stop "creating division by gossiping" and start "valuing and respecting people," according to the facilitator's summary report, which was recently obtained by The Gradebook through a public records request. Professors also cited a pressing need to create straightforward guidelines regarding retention, promotion and tenure.

The three-page document, generated in the aftermath of a faculty retreat in September 2006, does not name names or detail the nitty gritty of specific gripes. And yet, it offers the most telling evidence to date that problems at the law school go far beyond student frustration with administrators (see St. Petersburg Times stories here and here). Even with precious time running out on the American Bar Association's 5-year accreditation clock, the report suggests, FAMU law professors were mired in bickering.

Sources say the retreat was prompted by that bickering, and held at a posh Orlando resort. It's not clear how many faculty members attended, but the follow-up report by Wilhelmina Tribble of Lowe Tribble & Associates was e-mailed to 30 professors and administrators. These are the issues "you identified that could keep you from succeeding as a faculty and a law school," Tribble wrote in an e-mail accompanying the report. "Working on the things you want to STOP, START AND CONTINUE doing in order to acquire accreditation requires a lot of patience, and in some cases, great effort and personal commitment."

After meeting in two separate groups at the retreat, faculty members voted on which issues would top three lists. Under "STOP," they selected "unequal treatment of similarly situated persons," "thinking we are going to fail" and "creating division by gossiping." Under "START," they picked "valuing and respecting people," "improving administrative functions," "working toward ABA goals," "creating a collaborative environment," "thinking about how your teaching impacts students' Bar passage" and "communicating (clarifying, talking and listening)."

The summary report further lists more specific items under each category of problem. For example, the first listing under "unequal treatment" cites guidelines for promotion and tenure. The first listing under "thinking we are going to fail" is "eliminating the doubters."

Tribble told The Gradebook that the fault lines at the retreat ran between junior and senior faculty, and festered in a leadership vacuum that has plagued the school since former interim FAMU President Castell Bryant ousted former law Dean Percy Luney in 2005. "The faculty was really going in all different directions, due to lack of (permanent) leadership," said Tribble, who conducts diversity training for incoming students at the school and continues to stay in contact with sources there. "When that happens, everybody kind of fends for themselves. And when that happens, you tend to polarize the new and the old."

Many faculty members left the retreat "seeing on the same page," Tribble said – an assessment that a couple of sources at the law school disputed. Regardless, she said, even some of those who found the retreat helpful said things began to unravel again once they returned to the law school. "Unfortunately, a lot of what happened at that retreat got lost because they didn't make decisions about a new dean when they said they were going to," Tribble said. "Are they all right now? I don't know. I suspect they have gone back a little bit to where they were before."

Many law professors, past and present, have been reluctant to talk publicly. So we ask you: Have faculty relations improved since the retreat? Has faculty infighting impaired the school's core mission? Has the leadership vacuum been filled by the hiring of Dean LeRoy Pernell? Will it matter to the ABA whether faculty get along?

- Ron Matus, state education reporter

[Last modified: Tuesday, May 25, 2010 9:24am]


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