A weekend interview with ...
... Dr. James Ammons, the new president of Florida A&M University. Ammons will have a lot of fires to put out when he officially begins work in July, including a festering fiscal one (read here). But he's fought these kinds of blazes before. Not long after he became chancellor of North Carolina Central University in 2001, Ammons was forced to deal with a particularly ugly state audit that he called "embarrassing." He moved quickly. And the following year, the auditor gave NCCU a clean bill of health. The Gradebook sat down with Ammons earlier this week at the NCCU campus in Durham, N.C. For more about what he's accomplished at NCCU, read tomorrow's story in the St. Petersburg Times. In the meantime, if you want to know how Ammons handled one of many crises he faced in Durham, read these excerpts, which have been edited slightly for length:
Q: Shortly after you arrived here at Central, y'all got a state audit and it wasn't looking too good. Can you take me back to then and tell me about that audit and your reaction to that audit?
Ammons: When the audit came, we sat down and analyzed it. And probably what was most disappointing was that there were repeat issues. Which said to me that we're not doing all that we can to address these issues because they came up again. So I called a meeting with the finance division. And I looked at the educational preparation of the people who were here and many of them had college degrees. Some had advanced degrees, and so I was convinced that we had the talent to do it, and that we had to do it.
I just made it clear that this wasn't acceptable. And I wanted to know how I could help do what we needed to do. And they told me we needed to provide additional training for staff. We needed additional staff in some areas. So we provided the resources. And the first year, that same year, which was our first year, we got a clean audit. We turned it around.
Q: So when you got that first audit, what were your thoughts? Did you think, "Wow, this looks bad?" Did you think this was ridiculous. Were you mad?
Ammons: Probably some of all of that. It was, it was really sort of embarrassing. Because in some instances you had people who were obviously stealing from the institution through the bookstore. They had this scheme where they were using refunds, the refund system, in order to pocket money. You had money consistently missing from the ticket office. And then we didn't have controls in place. Which are basic and fundamental kinds of issues in accounting. You got to have internal controls.
Q: You set up workshops for administrators so they knew policies and procedures, right? Was that a one-time thing?
Ammons: It continues. We still have the workshops but it was something that we started. In addition to that, we decided that after we were looking at best practices at universities and colleges in the state and across the country, that we would contract out the bookstore.
Q: Did you fire any people at the bookstore?
Ammons: Yeah, we did. We did. Some left before they would be dismissed. And over in the ticket office, we began using Ticketmaster and other automated systems so that we could cut down on the problems with ticket sales.
Q: In some of your speeches (at NCCU), you made a point of talking about fiscal integrity and accountability and you also used this term, "Handle your business." What does that mean and why did you stress that?
Ammons: I think one of the knocks on a number of institutions - and especially those in the African American community and historically black colleges and universities - is that we have financial management problems. And I wanted to make a point that regardless of the status of this institution, the makeup of its student body, faculty and staff, we were going to be held to the same standards that everybody else was going to be held to. And that I believed in the people. I really do. I really believed that we could get it done. Just let me know what it takes in terms of additional resources, additional staff, additional technology, and that would be my job, to put those things in place so we could take this issue off the table with the people of North Carolina.
Q: So when you got the first clean audit, what was your reaction?
Ammons: Oh, it was (he laughs), we weren't used to getting them, so it was a big deal. We had a celebration here on the campus. With staff. The same ones I had the meeting with. I think we had a luncheon for them. And during that year, most of the gatherings that we had, especially with alumni and constituent groups with the university, we highlighted it. Because it was a major accomplishment.
- Ron Matus, state education reporter