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FAMU's probation lifted

TALLAHASSEE — James Ammons got the news on his cell phone about 8:45 a.m. Thursday, just as he was turning into campus.

The Florida A&M University president had not slept well. National accreditors had just voted on whether his embattled school should remain on probation, and the guy on the line had just given him the verdict.

Ammons, ever polite, said thank you, then proceeded to a meeting with his top staff. Purposely, he delayed the bottom line until "they were really getting irritated with me." Then he told them.

Probation, lifted.

"There was just jubilee in that room," Ammons said.

Within hours, jubilee spilled out to the rest of the FAMU community.

The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools' Commission on Colleges concluded that the nation's largest historically black university has fixed the financial management and leadership problems that have plagued it for years.

The decision, made in Asheville, N.C., sent a clear message to anyone who has followed recent headlines: FAMU has turned a corner.

Said FAMU trustee Daryl Parks: "We no longer have this cloud."

The university already was drenched in negative publicity when it was put on probation last June, the first step SACS takes before revoking a college's accreditation.

The SACS commission had concluded FAMU was not complying with 10 standards for financial accountability.

The implications were ominous: Without accreditation, an institution's students are not eligible for federal financial aid. Recruitment suffers. The value of a degree plummets. No Florida public university has ever had its accreditation stripped.

The probation decision followed a steady drumbeat of other bad news, including a state audit that found millions of dollars in questionable expenses, shoddy bookkeeping and lost inventory. Higher education officials assembled a task force to watchdog FAMU finances. Lawmakers grew angry.

All of it was a reminder of the instability that roiled FAMU after longtime president Frederick Humphries stepped down in 2001. And all of it highlighted how far FAMU had fallen.

Ten years prior, FAMU had been Time magazine's College of the Year. Now, with probation, it was joining a list of troubled institutions that most people had never heard of.

"That was the low point," said Parks, a former student body president.

But maybe, too, a turning point: "It wasn't a situation where we were going to give up on FAMU, ever," he said. "It was a situation where we were going to dig in deeper, and work even harder."

Trustees chose Ammons in February 2007, just weeks before the jaw-dropping state audit. When he arrived on campus three days after the SACS announcement, the daunting task before him was suddenly even more so.

"This job clearly was not for the faint of heart," said Ammons, FAMU's former provost under Humphries. "But when I read the audits, the reports, the academic reviews, I didn't see anything that couldn't be fixed."

Ammons made the SACS concerns a priority, even as he chipped away at other problems.

He put together a team of administrators — many of them from North Carolina Central University, where he had been chancellor — and crafted a lengthy "to-fix" list based on the concerns of the accrediting body and the state auditor general. It ranged from fixing payroll problems to better controlling research expenses and the use of grants. It became the foundation for the first year of his presidency.

By October, a SACS committee that visited the campus to evaluate FAMU's progress called the improvements "remarkable."

Several weeks later, the state auditor general released its FAMU financial review for 2006-07, and it was the best in years. But SACS officials did not have time to review the audit before meeting in December, when they voted to extend the probation by another six months.

Ammons pressed on. He and other administrators celebrated small victories, like when 100 percent of the pharmacy college's graduates passed the national licensing exam.

Fast forward to Thursday. More than 200 students, faculty and alumni stood outside FAMU's Lee Hall at noon to hear Ammons make the announcement and lead them in the Rattler Chant. A banner read, "Legacy Preserved."

Afterward, the campus buzzed. Media blogs crackled.

"For those that looked down on FAM, said negative things or didn't give us a chance we forgive you," one supporter wrote on the Gradebook, the Times education blog. "For those that stood shoulder to shoulder, fought with us through blood sweat and tears, God is not finished with us yet!"

"I feel like it's been a long time coming," said FAMU senior Alysia Sturges.

Board of Governors Chairwoman Carolyn Roberts praised Ammons' work and said the big winners were FAMU students.

"For their degree to be of a value that is competitive, the degree must be earned from an accredited university," Roberts said.

FAMU still faces challenges.

Federal prosecutors are investigating reports of unauthorized grade changes. Its six-year graduation rate has dropped to 38 percent. Its hiring practices have drawn charges of cronyism.

In Orlando, the clock is ticking fast for FAMU's law school, which is trying to overcome faculty infighting and administrative blunders in time to win full accreditation next year.

But to many supporters, Thursday's news was a sign that the worst is over. Trustees chairman Bill Jennings said he recently spotted two students in FAMU T-shirts at a Jacksonville mall. He didn't identify himself as a trustee, but asked them what they thought of their college.

"They said the problems were being fixed, that they really love it," Jennings said. "It was like they were trying to recruit me."

Times correspondent Nathaniel Nelson contributed to this report. Ron Matus can be reached at matus@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8873.

ON THE WEB: To learn more about the problems FAMU fixed, go to tampabay.com

The Problems FAMU Fixed

To get off probation, FAMU officials proved to the SACS commission that they are in compliance with 10 accrediting standards:

2.2: The board is an active policy-making body for the institution and is ultimately responsible for ensuring that the financial resources of the institution are adequate to provide a sound educational program.

2.11.1: The institution has a sound financial base and demonstrated financial stability.

3.2.8: Has qualified administrative and academic officers.

3.10.1: Recent financial history demonstrates financial stability.

3.10.2: Provides financial profile information on an annual basis and other measures of financial health as requested by the commission.

3.10.3: Audits financial aid programs as required.

3.10.4: Exercises appropriate control over all its financial resources.

3.10.5: Maintains financial control over externally funded or sponsored research and programs.

3.11.1: Exercises appropriate control over all its physical resources.

4.7: Is in compliance with its program responsibilities under Title IV of the 1998 higher education amendments.

FAMU's probation lifted 06/26/08 [Last modified: Saturday, June 28, 2008 8:26pm]

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