The University of South Florida wasn't the only school in the hot seat over graduation rates at Wednesday's meeting of the Florida Board of Governors. Florida A&M University President James Ammons got quite the finger-wagging on that lagging metric -- and several others -- in an annual university work-plan delivered to the board to justify a request for a 15 percent tuition differential increase.
Board members expressed frustration over the low number of FAMU students passing professional exams (like the bar exam for law students), the high number of profile admits (students admitted to the university without meeting certain academic standards) and the average amount of student debt at FAMU (higher than any other university in the state, with 84 percent of students having debt).
It made USF's earlier grilling session seem like a cakewalk in comparison.
"i think FAMU is an incredible asset to our state that should be preserved and enhanced... I want to see FAMU go forward," said board member Mori Hosseini. "I don't see FAMU going forward today."
Ammons agreed that "we have challenges." He agreed to return to the board in September with more detail on FAMU's graduation rates and student loan patterns.
It comes at a particularly prickly time for the state's only historically black public university. Recent troubles include the November death of one of its student band members and a subsequent criminal investigation into hazing, a report that revealed more than a dozen FAMU audits delivered to state higher education leaders had been fabricated, issues raised by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools accreditation agency and more.
Those mounting issues led to a vote of "no confidence" into Ammons's leadership by his Board of Trustees earlier this month -- a fact not lost on Hosseini.
"We have a hell of a time giving any (tuition) increases to the universities," Hosseini said. Then, FAMU comes forth with four-year graduation rates at just 12 percent, with two-thirds of its freshmen class considered "profile admits," and with almost 85 percent of students with debt of almost $30,000.
"I mean, I personally am going to have a hell of a time approving anything when, you know, you come before us with a vote of no confidence from your own board," Hosseini said.
He wasn't the only one with concerns.
Board chairman Dean Colson said the high debt in conjunction with the low graduation rates is particularly worrisome. What about all those students who don't graduate and start out in life underwater? he wondered.
Board member John Rood felt FAMU needed to re-think its top priorities, which are listed in its work-plan as research, online learning and retention.
"I would really hope, for the sake of the students, you would focus on excellence, student success and come up with a plan on achieving it and then look at student debt," Rood said.
Ammons stood by the school's number of "profile admits," saying that giving under-represented students opportunities that they wouldn't have at other universities is part of FAMU's core mission. And he pointed to hefty state budget cuts over five years as explanation for some of the universities' problems.
But, Hosseini pointed out, "all of our universities are going through the same thing... and every statistic you look at, FAMU is at the bottom."
FAMU, like most of the other universities, is seeking a 15 percent tuition differential increase. The board will vote on those requests tomorrow.