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FAMU savior investigated in North Carolina for old school ties

Since taking charge 13 months ago, Florida A&M University President James Ammons has cleaned up his troubled school's finances, mollified angry lawmakers and removed the year-long stain of probation from FAMU's name. His upcoming inauguration is billed as befitting a native son who "saved the institution from ruin."

But now FAMU's savior is in hot water.

In another state.

University system officials in North Carolina are investigating why, under Ammons' leadership in 2004, North Carolina Central University set up a small satellite campus inside an Atlanta-area megachurch without getting approval from trustees, the state's higher education board or accreditors. NCCU ended the program in June, leaving 39 students in limbo, after officials with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) raised concerns about faculty quality.

Ammons, NCCU's chancellor from 2001 to 2007, accepted blame. In an Aug. 13 statement to the Raleigh News & Observer, which broke the story Aug. 10, he said it was up to other top NCCU officials to make sure the L.I.F.E. College program at New Birth Missionary Baptist Church was properly vetted.

But "whatever the circumstances, it was a grave oversight," he continued. "It was ultimately my responsibility."

North Carolina officials are not satisfied.

An investigation is under way to "determine and evaluate the facts related to the establishment and operation of NCCU degree programs" at New Birth, wrote Joni Worthington, spokeswoman for the North Carolina university system, in an e-mail to the St. Petersburg Times. "That certainly includes an examination of why officials in leadership positions at the time did not follow clearly established policies, processes, and protocols."

FAMU Trustees Chairman Bill Jennings said he was "not overly concerned about what happened up there."

"I'm concerned about (Ammons') performance over the past 12 months at A&M," he said. "And it's really been outstanding."

To date, the North Carolina story has received scant media attention in Florida. But it does have a Florida twist: The powerful and controversial pastor who is central to it, Bishop Eddie Long, was elected last month to the FAMU Foundation board of directors. The foundation raises, invests and administers private donations for FAMU.

For Ammons, the timing isn't good.

FAMU supporters celebrated statewide when SACS announced two months ago that it was taking FAMU off probation. The move sent a strong signal that FAMU had finally put to rest the sloppy accounting and lax oversight that had spawned blistering audits for years.

But just as Ammons was impressing accreditors with his work at FAMU, they were raising red flags at NCCU.

According to the News & Observer, NCCU failed to notify SACS about the new satellite campus — even though SACS rules require it. In his statement, Ammons suggested "transitional issues" in key departments played a role in what happened.

Adding to the shock: Ammons' reputation as a SACS expert. As a former member of the SACS Commission on Colleges, Ammons chaired several accreditation teams that reviewed whether universities were up to snuff.

The presence of Bishop Long adds to the intrigue, too.

With 25,000 members, Long's church is one of the nation's biggest. His ministry is lucrative. His lifestyle, lavish. And all of those things have brought unwanted attention.

Long is one of six megachurch ministers being investigated by U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, for possibly misusing the tax-exempt status of religious organizations.

In 2005, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that one of Long's charities made $3.1-million in donations over four years — while providing him with $3.07-million in salary, benefits and property, including a $1.4-million home, use of a $350,000 Bentley automobile and, in one year, $494,000 in salary.

"We're not just a church, we're an international corporation," Long told the newspaper. "We're not just a bumbling bunch of preachers who can't talk and all we're doing is baptizing babies. I deal with the White House. I deal with Tony Blair. I deal with presidents around the world."

Long has been generous to his alma mater, too. An NCCU graduate and trustee, he has contributed at least $1.4-million to the school, the News & Observer reported, with $1-million of that coming this month.

Ammons told the Raleigh paper he never talked with Long about the satellite campus. But he said the New Birth program gave NCCU a chance to partner with the pastor and expand into a new market. About 25 students have earned degrees there.

"We saw a need in the community at that time and tried to fill it," he wrote.

Back in Florida, Board of Governors Chairwoman Sheila McDevitt could not be reached for comment Wednesday and BOG spokesman Bill Edmonds declined to comment.

Worthington, the North Carolina spokeswoman, said it's unclear when the investigation will be finished. But "it will be thorough and complete," she said, "and we will be transparent and forthcoming with the findings."

Ron Matus can be reached at matus@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8873.

FAMU savior investigated in North Carolina for old school ties 08/20/08 [Last modified: Sunday, August 24, 2008 10:02am]
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