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FAMU in turmoil

He came to Florida A&M University in a glow of hope and admiration, an alumnus with a track record for upgrading college systems who admitted clipping news articles to keep tabs on the school long before he was tapped to lead it.

But Florida A&M president Fred Gainous' bitter dismissal Tuesday _ after little more than two years spent mostly trying to clean up the school's longstanding financial and organizational problems _ placed an ugly capstone on an often-contentious and disappointing tenure in a way that seems sure to harm the state's only historically black college for years to come.

Implemented by a divided board of trustees after a heated public meeting, the lightning-fast firing ensures that administrators with comparable credentials may think twice before entering the buzzsaw of politics and problems wrapped up in leading the 13,000-student school.

Part of Gainous' downfall was his inability to stop the steady drumbeat of new controversies, or develop a decisive, systemwide plan for reform with wide support. Inheriting a financial aid system already under investigation with a habit of failing to follow standard business procedures, Gainous spent long months discovering the depths of old problems while new difficulties emerged, culminating with the state's decision in November 2003 to cut off pay for the president and 18 top administrators until they provided crucial financial records six weeks late.

Under Gainous, the embarrassing problems continued, including a delay in moving the school's football team to the prestigious NCAA Division I-A, the loss of 11 Mid-Eastern Atlantic Conference titles after the NCAA learned the school allowed academically ineligible athletes to compete and key dean positions going unfilled.

His biggest challenge may have been replacing the popular Frederick Humphries, widely credited for bringing the school national acclaim over his 16-year tenure. But Humphries' authoritative style also kept a lid on information about the university's mounting problems, as he warded off criticism from state officials, in part, by complaining of discrimination against the historically black school.

Race politics also may have helped undermine Gainous, who denied rumors he was colluding with Gov. Jeb Bush to merge the school with a predominantly white institution. And his proposal to make the college's instructors teach classes at Tallahassee Community College alienated faculty _ another important constituency.

Indeed, the embattled president seemed unable to manage the politics of his position, admitting in a Sept. 8 meeting with the St. Petersburg Times editorial board he was not sure why there was so much friction between alumni and school administrators or why his support among trustees seemed divided along racial lines. In Tuesday's 9-4 vote to terminate Gainous' contract Jan. 1, the board's three white trustees voted against the dismissal.

Now Florida A&M has a lame duck president and no obvious plan for finding a replacement _ a process that took 10 months when Gainous was selected. Unfortunately, the ultimate losers may be the students, who can only watch as one of the country's best-known historically black colleges paralyzes itself in a struggle over the presidency while the problems that sparked Gainous' dismissal continue on.