TALLAHASSEE — James Ammons arrived at his alma mater a year ago to take on the task many critics thought impossible: fix Florida A&M University, the nation's largest historically black college.
Fix the payroll problems that left some faculty and staff members without checks for weeks. Fix the troubled law school in Orlando. Fix the financial mismanagement that prompted lawmakers to demand a criminal investigation. Fix the curriculum and faculty shortfalls that had such vaunted programs as pharmacy and journalism in peril.
Fix it all before national accreditors stripped their must-have seal of approval from the school.
Ammons, FAMU's 10th president, will be the first to tell you he hasn't fixed everything. Federal investigators are looking into a grade-changing scandal. The law school isn't fully accredited. University enrollment levels and graduation rates aren't where they need to be.
But the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools' Commission on Colleges recent decision to restore FAMU's accreditation — after placing it on probation for the past year — is a significant sign Ammons is turning the 120-year-old school in the right direction.
"We've still got a lot of work to do," Ammons said. "But we are much better off than we were 10 or 11 months ago."
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He took the reins in early July 2007, when the storied institution seemed to have sunk to its lowest depth.
Ammons had left FAMU years earlier, trading the provost's job there for the presidency at North Carolina Central University. When he left, FAMU was still basking in the glow of being named Time magazine's College of the Year.
He returned to find many of the programs he had helped establish and foster in serious trouble.
"This wasn't the high-energy, vibrant place that I knew," Ammons said. "People were downtrodden. That was difficult for me, being a FAMU Rattler and seeing that."
Ammons' voice still grows weary as he lists the problems looming over him in those first months.
"We had the state audit with 35 findings. The pharmacy college, a premier program, was on probation with accreditors. I mean, pharmacy? The law school had problems that seemed insurmountable. We had five other academic programs with issues. We had hundreds of people not getting paid," he said, shaking his head.
And just days before he started, accreditors took the rare and serious step of putting FAMU on probation.
Without accreditation, an institution's students are not eligible for federal financial aid. Recruitment suffers, and the value of a degree plummets. No Florida public university has ever had its accreditation stripped.
Accreditation became Ammons' priority, even as he dealt with other problems.
Ammons assembled a team of administrators — many of them from North Carolina Central — and crafted a lengthy "to-fix" list based on the concerns of the accrediting body and the state auditor general.
What followed was a year of 12-hour days, intense scrutiny and many highs and lows:
• State auditors in the fall released their FAMU financial review for 2006-07, and it was the best in years. It concluded the university had fixed or partially corrected 13 problems from an earlier audit. And the seven new areas of concern they found during the tenure of interim president Castell Bryant were less egregious than in previous years.
Still, the report came too late for accreditors officials to review it, so they extended FAMU's probation another six months.
• Ammons persuaded LeRoy Pernell to leave his longtime post as dean of Northern Illinois University's law school and take over the FAMU law school. Pernell arrived in January and has since hired several notable faculty members from around the country. But students' bar passage performance remains the worst among public universities in Florida, and three law school employees recently were fired following an investigation — launched by Ammons — into allegations of improper grade changes and admissions.
The law school is looking at a February deadline to secure the American Bar Association's seal of approval.
"This is an instance where we need time," Ammons said. "But it's an area where I have a lot of confidence."
• Ammons arrived to find accreditation problems with other programs, most notably pharmacy. FAMU has long reveled in its status as the country's No. 1 producer of black pharmacists. Ammons quickly appointed a new dean, Henry Lewis III, and promised him whatever resources necessary to turn the program around.
Lewis said it would take nearly $2-million to hire additional faculty members and improve the curriculum and lab resources to accreditors' satisfaction.
"I looked at him and just said, 'You've got it,' " Ammons said. "Because FAMU isn't FAMU without a top pharmacy program."
The pharmacy and other programs have since been reaccredited, and 100 percent of the pharmacy college's graduates passed the national licensing exam earlier this year.
• Ammons spent the spring on a statewide bus tour, recruiting top students with lucrative scholarships in an attempt to reverse years of declining enrollment and sagging graduation rates.
• A state task force charged with reviewing FAMU's financial problems finished its work last week and sent a report to the governor that concludes FAMU has taken action to correct most of the issues identified by state auditors.
Task force chairwoman Lynn Pappas said FAMU is on its way to restoring "financial operational integrity and public trust."
"Dr. Ammons has not only accomplished the goals we set out for him; he has far exceeded them," echoed FAMU alumnus Bill Jennings, chairman of the school's board of trustees.
But even with the removal of SACS' probation, Ammons is not declaring his to-do list conquered. He said he will not rest easy until the law school is accredited and its reputation improved. He won't be satisfied until FAMU's enrollment and student caliber rises to the levels he enjoyed as provost in the 1990s.
"We're going to just hang in there," Ammons said. "We'll have our detractors, but we're going to give it everything we've got. And along the way, we'll surprise some people."
Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3403.