Being a president of any university is a lot like having several different jobs at once. You're an administrator, fundraiser and politician, to name a few. At Florida A&M University, there's one more — one that for years has overshadowed all the others: Crisis manager. Today, that duty falls to James Ammons, as he works to protect FAMU from mounting public criticism amid investigations into hazing, financial troubles, accreditation issues and more.
Ammons, a FAMU alumnus and former provost, knew what he was getting into.
Since the early 2000s, leaders of FAMU have found themselves in headlines for scandals and scrutiny. Problems have ranged from missing money and late paychecks to revoked grants and the threat of lost accreditation.
Good news has often been qualified with the word "finally."
Now, on the cusp of his five-year anniversary and with a recent vote of no confidence from his own Board of Trustees, Ammons is making a promise that many have made before him — a pledge that he, himself, made the day he took the job.
"We can fix the problems."
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Among Florida's African-Americans, few public institutions inspire as much as loyalty and pride as FAMU.
For decades, the state's only historically black public university has produced many of the state's black leaders and professionals, including lawmakers, NFL players, judges, business CEOs, a Tony award-winning actress and an Olympic gold medalist. It has been ranked as the No. 1 producer of African-American baccalaureate degree holders and it's band is hailed internationally.
But turmoil has persisted over the years.
By 2007, finances were still in disarray after attempts to fix them. Administrators and trustees had left, often under pressure. FAMU's accreditation, required for federal financial aid, was about to be put on probation for violating a number of standards, including financial accountability, leadership, and controls over areas such as sponsored research and inventory.
Then chancellor of historically black North Carolina Central University, Ammons had served as FAMU provost during what is now seen as the halcyon days, culminating in 1997 when the school was named College of the Year by Time magazine and the Princeton Review. It competed with Harvard for the nation's top black students. In 15 years from the mid 80s to 90s, enrollment more than doubled.
Ammons beat out two other candidates for the FAMU presidency, albeit by a slim 7-6 vote of the Board of Trustees. Despite what the then-chairwoman, who voted for somebody else, deemed a "difference of opinion," FAMU quickly embraced Ammons.
At his inauguration, he was called "a native son" arriving "just in the nick of time to save the institution from ruin."
In just a few months, it seemed to be coming true.
By December, FAMU got its first positive financial audit in years.
A month before Ammons' first anniversary, a state task force charged with looking into FAMU's finances issued a glowing report.
Then Ammons heard that the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools had taken FAMU's accreditation off probation.
He made a campus announcement standing in front of a banner that read "Legacy Preserved," and the community rejoiced.
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There was a different legacy left in North Carolina.
That same year, the university Ammons had left in Durham found itself trying to explain how a small satellite campus at an Atlanta megachurch was established without authorization.
The campus, called the New L.I.F.E. College Program, was set up at the church of Eddie Long, a North Carolina Central University graduate who was named to the university's board of trustees two years earlier, according to news reports at the time. He was also a generous NCCU donor.
When questioned about the campus at the time, Ammons told reporters that while he didn't remember specifics, as head of the university, "I accept full responsibility."
He agreed to repay the federal government more than $1 million of $3 million dispersed in financial aid for ineligible programs.
The chancellor who took over after Ammons at NCCU, Charlie Nelms, was praised for setting things right. As the church campus was shut down, students were able to continue their degree programs.
"If it were not for Charlie, I don't know where we would be today," the University of North Carolina's president at the time, Erskine Bowles, said back then. "He inherited a mess."
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The pressure on Ammons and other FAMU leaders has been relentless and intense.
While some problems pre-date the hazing scandal, the November death of a student band member put a glaring national spotlight on the university.
Since then, investigations have been launched into band finances, allegations that more than 100 band members were not enrolled as students, the sexual assault of a child at FAMU's elementary school and that a dozen fabricated audits were submitted to state leaders.
Shortly after the hazing scandal erupted, the FAMU Board of Trustees resisted Gov. Rick Scott's demand they suspend Ammons. Last week, the head of the board that oversees the State University System told trustees Ammons' upcoming evaluation should hold him accountable for the ongoing issues at the university.
Last week, Ammons sat stoically while the FAMU Board of Trustees complained about his leadership.
Narayan Persaud characterized it as "a wilderness of errors."
Belinda Shannon said she was "deeply troubled by a lack of oversight and lack of communication."
Ammons, who earns $325,000 in base pay a year, $200,000 of which is paid by state funds, plus hefty bonuses, has a particularly protective contract. It requires a super-majority of the 12-member board to fire him. The no-confidence vote was approved 8-4.
Solomon Badger, chairman of FAMU's Board of Trustees, was one of the handful of trustees who didn't agree with the no-confidence stance. When it became clear which way the vote would go, based on trustees' comments, Badger called a short recess.
He and Ammons walked to the back of the room.
"I need to make a decision right now," Badger recalled Ammons saying. His options: resign or try to move forward.
After a few minutes, Ammons returned to the table. He folded his hands and leaned into the microphone.
"There are some things to fix," he said. "And I'm going to fix them."
Times news researcher John Martin contributed to this story. Kim Wilmath can be reached at [email protected] or 813-226-3337.