Power struggle at Florida A&M University brings new crisis for school

Published September 3 2015

TALLAHASSEE — Trustees at Florida A&M University turned to an outsider — and the school's first female president — to lead them out of the turmoil that followed the hazing death of a Marching 100 drum major. But 18 months later the historic school is facing a new crisis marked by allegations of harassment and insubordination — and complaints from politicians.

FAMU President Elmira Mangum is locked in a power struggle with some of her trustees that could short-circuit her tenure at the school, located less than a mile from the state Capitol. A handful of Democratic legislators and Tallahassee's mayor have put the blame on Rufus Montgomery and have asked him to step down from his current position as chairman of the board of trustees.

One of the most recent flare-ups included Mangum hanging up on Montgomery during an apparent testy phone call. She wound up writing a memo that accused Montgomery of harassment and violating university employee rules.

"Situations as the one that occurred this morning and that have happened on a number of other occasions, also make it increasingly difficult to do the work that the Board of Trustees has tasked me to do," Mangum wrote in an August memo. "And I fear that it not only damages the brand of the university, but it is also unsustainable."

Montgomery, an alumnus and now a successful lobbyist in Georgia, has refused to step down. He and some other board members have responded by saying their criticisms are legitimate. They point to management decisions and questionable hires by the administration as the reasons behind their decision to publicly question Mangum's performance.

"The board's recent evaluation of the president's performance illustrated that there's some progress to be made," Montgomery said in an email requesting comment on the recent clashes. "We are working toward the betterment of FAMU and that requires accountability and a great working relationship between the president and the board."

Mangum was hired in early 2013 as a "change agent" who could help FAMU restore its reputation following a tumultuous period that included the November 2011 death of band member Robert Champion of Decatur, Ga. The university has also had problems with finances and audits that led to investigations and firings. Former President James Ammons abruptly resigned in 2012 amid the fallout over Champion's death.

But the path for Mangum quickly turned rocky as some trustees bristled over some of the terms in her contract that pays her $425,000 a year.

Her decision to turn to former NFL star tight end Kellen Winslow to run the athletics department ended quickly after he resigned in December 2014. Winslow drew criticism from trustees and alumni especially after he fired the school's football coach during homecoming week. An internal audit released this past June concluded he had been paid for 16 days when he wasn't at work.

Other hiring decisions have also raised questions. A FAMU vice president hired a special assistant who previously pleaded guilty to financial aid fraud and was sentenced to three years of probation. Santoras Dee Gamble, who is getting paid $75,000 by FAMU, had worked at Cornell University, where Mangum worked prior to taking the post at FAMU.

Jimmy Miller, the vice president who says it was his decision to hire Gamble, noted he is no longer on probation and defended giving him a second chance.

"FAMU has been commonly known as the "opportunity university," because we believe in giving individuals the first and second chances that they may never have had at other institutions," Miller said in a written response to questions. "Had we not given Mr. Gamble a second chance, the university itself would have missed an opportunity, an opportunity to receive support, expertise, and excellent service from a bright young man who is dedicated to the advancement of the students we serve."

Trustees have raised questions about $77,000 worth of repairs done to the president's garage and driveway. Miller said the repairs were done without Mangum's approval. FAMU this past year also lost out on performance bonuses from the state and the state board that oversees Florida's university system forced FAMU to redo its plans to address problems at the school, including its low graduation rate.

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