Wednesday, April 18, 2018

FAMU president resigns amid growing pressure

At one of the most troubled times in its history, Florida's only historically black public university is losing its president. Again.

James Ammons resigned Wednesday, capping off months of mounting scrutiny at Florida A&M University — beginning with the hazing death of a student band member last fall and coming to a head last month with a vote of "no confidence" in Ammons by his Board of Trustees. That followed an array of other problems across campus.

"Challenges," as Ammons vaguely put it in a resignation letter, "that must be met head on."

To name a few:

• The fate of FAMU's famed marching band, now on suspension after Robert Champion's death in November and the subsequent news that more than 100 band members had not been enrolled as students at the time.

• A wrongful death lawsuit brought by Champion's parents that, as of Wednesday, includes the university.

• The continuing cleanup of FAMU's audit office, which last year submitted about a dozen audits to state leaders without any actual work done to back them up.

• A graduation rate that puts FAMU in last place among the state's 11 universities, with just 12 percent of students graduating in four years and under 40 percent in six years.

"When the next president experiences her or his transition in," Ammons wrote, "she or he will very likely find additional challenges, albeit not nearly to the extent of that which I faced at the outset, or those I am now facing."

In other words, it may get worse before it gets better.

"I am saddened by President Ammons' decision to resign," FAMU Board of Trustees chairman Solomon Badger said in a statement, "but it is his choice to do so. Given all that has transpired, it seems to be in the best interest of the university and I applaud him for putting FAMU ahead of his personal goals."

Ammons, 59, is the latest in a series of FAMU presidents who have been called on to fix problems at the school, only to leave a few years later without succeeding. Before him, it was Castell Bryant. Before her, Fred Gainous.

Ammons replaced Bryant in 2007. Bryant had been brought in two years earlier to clean up a mess left by Gainous in the early 2000s. Gainous inherited budgets that were off by millions of dollars, troubles in the school's financial aid office and investigations into questionable spending.

Those problems had bubbled under the surface of what's now seen as FAMU's golden years: Frederick Humphries' administration, in which Ammons, a FAMU alumnus, served as provost.

When he took the presidential job in 2007, finances at FAMU were still in disarray. The university'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.

Nevertheless, in his interview with the board of trustees at the time, Ammons promised to fix things. He called himself a native son sent to "rekindle the spirit of Florida A&M University."

"You can turn off your porch light," he said at the time. "Our son has come home."

By December, FAMU got its first positive financial audit in years, and then the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools took FAMU's accreditation off probation.

For several years, Ammons and FAMU stayed comfortably out of the headlines.

Last year, Ammons renegotiated his contract.

Among the changes — which included a bump in his $300,000-plus annual salary — was a new protection for Ammons' job. It would take two-thirds of the Board of Trustees to fire him.

That kind of "super majority" levied the vote of no-confidence in Ammons in an unexpected start to an otherwise routine meeting last month.

The board had another meeting scheduled Wednesday afternoon to talk about budget issues. Ammons resigned just a couple hours before it convened.

He said he would officially step down Oct. 11. After that, Ammons will remain at the university as a tenured professor, bringing home his presidential salary for at least a year, as his contract allows, working on science, technology, engineering and math initiatives.

He will join another former president who remains on the FAMU payroll.

Humphries, according to state public records, still works as a professor, making $188,000 a year.

Kim Wilmath can be reached at [email protected] or 813-226-3337.


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