TALLAHASSEE — Facing what one member called a "crisis of historic proportions," Florida A&M University's board of trustees decided Thursday it has no confidence in the school's president.
The move, approved on an 8-4 vote, is a step away from firing James Ammons. But he vowed to stick it out and fix the university's problems, which came to light amid a hazing scandal that has made national headlines.
"It wasn't what I wanted to hear, but I understand," Ammons said. "And we're going to work and work and correct those issues that we have."
This is not the first time his leadership has been called into question: In December, the FAMU board voted to formally reprimand Ammons, stopping short of an urging by Gov. Rick Scott to suspend him.
Even board chairman Solomon Badger, one of the few who voted against Thursday's motion, agreed that Ammons is on thin ice.
"It's strike two," he said. "Three strikes and you're out."
Still, Ammons' supporters quickly rushed to his side Thursday.
Florida Rep. Alan Williams, a FAMU alumni, was out running errands when he heard news of the vote. Soon he was there at the meeting, proclaiming that Ammons is good for FAMU. "I have full confidence," he said, before shaking Ammons' hand and hugging him.
The vote is the latest flash point in the FAMU turmoil that started with the November death of a student band member who police said was hazed. The pressure on Ammons has intensified amid a growing list of problems across the university.
• A revelation in the hazing investigation after Robert Champion's death that more than 100 members of the FAMU band were not enrolled as students.
• A Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigation into potential fraud in the band's finances.
• Findings that FAMU submitted unsubstantiated audits to state higher education leaders.
• Charges that an 8-year-old student at an elementary school affiliated with the university was sexually assaulted.
• Issues with accreditation and lagging graduation rates.
It was Ammons' apparent lack of knowledge or control over many of these issues, beginning with the nonstudents in the band, that prompted the no-confidence motion by trustee Bill Jennings.
"The only person I can hold accountable," Jennings said, "is Dr. Ammons."
The motion came at the beginning of what would have otherwise been a fairly routine meeting. After several members' comments made it evident that the vote would pass, Badger called a five-minute recess and stepped aside to talk to Ammons.
Badger later told reporters Ammons had considered two options: to resign, or to "take this and go forward with it."
The rebuke takes on extra gravity considering the vote count: 8-4, or two-thirds of the board.
Based on Ammons' recently renegotiated contract, it would take two-thirds of the board to terminate him.
If things don't improve, said trustee Jennings, "I think it will lead to his removal." He didn't say how long before the board would make that determination.
After the meeting, dozens of alumni staged a press conference to stand up for Ammons — a man who was brought to the school in 2007 to fix another crisis.
At the time, FAMU was in danger of losing its accreditation due to rampant financial mismanagement. Less than a year later, the school was taken off accreditation probation, and Ammons declared victory.
He was similarly optimistic Thursday, telling reporters with a smile that he appreciated the constructive criticism.
The chairman of the Florida Board of Governors seemed tentatively hopeful, too.
In a statement released after the vote, Dean Colson thanked the FAMU board for what he called a difficult decision.
"I sincerely appreciate their direct engagement that continues to identify, research and resolve every issue that needs their collective attention," Colson said.
Earlier this week, Colson sent a strongly worded letter to FAMU's board asking to see a review of Ammons — as he has asked of all 11 university presidents. Colson asked trustees to explain how many of the university's current troubles occurred.
Now it seems Ammons may have to add to that list. In a surprising twist Thursday, a FAMU employee brought a number of serious allegations, including sexual harassment, to the board. Afterward, Badger said FAMU would begin investigating the new claims.
Kim Wilmath can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 813-226-3337.