TALLAHASSEE — A leadership battle at Florida A&M University isn't a simple clash of personalities between the president and the chairman of the board of trustees. It also is causing prominent FAMU alumni to choose sides.
The tensions between FAMU President Elmira Mangum — who has been on the job just over a year — and trustees Chairman Rufus Montgomery escalated when a new clash made headlines Monday. Five elected officials who are also FAMU alumni called a Wednesday news conference to ask Montgomery to resign. He quickly refused.
Given that Mangum is FAMU's sixth chief executive since 2001, many supporters of the university say it will be a loss if the conflict with Montgomery ends in her departure.
For instance, Tallahassee attorney Chuck Hobbs, whose mother taught at FAMU, pointed to the university's recent history of budget, accreditation and audit problems — and its proximity to the larger Florida State University.
"All of these things, when you couple them with the fact that you cannot keep a leader in the presidency, would tend to show to people who have no … direct connection to the university, it would further bolster, perhaps, their concerns that having two universities in the city of Tallahassee is simply a waste of money," Hobbs said.
Marjorie Turnbull, a former Democratic lawmaker who served as a FAMU trustee until May, said another change in the presidency "would be especially disastrous, not only for students and faculty but FAMU's national reputation."
"No one of stature or competency would consider applying for the position," she said.
Others disagree, saying an early exit by Mangum — formerly the vice president for planning and budget at Cornell University — wouldn't hurt FAMU at all.
"Sometimes you have to keep trying until you get it right," said Leon County Commissioner Bill Proctor, a FAMU alumnus and long-time instructor. "I don't think FAMU would be set back if she left."
"If this is not the job for you, then you got a hell of a contract," said former state Sen. Al Lawson, a prominent alum who was a candidate for president when Mangum was hired last year. "You might want to move on."
Mangum was hired in January 2014. She started work that April, but her tenure turned rocky before her first day, with some trustees trying to reduce her pay and benefits in contract negotiations. Earlier this month, the trustees approved an annual evaluation of Mangum and a plan for her to provide them with detailed monthly progress reports. They'll take up her job performance again in November.
The latest dispute, on Monday, featured Montgomery accusing Mangum of insubordination for hanging up on him. She sent him a letter saying he'd violated her employee rights by insisting on speaking when she was busy and then ignoring her requests for time to revamp her schedule.
Neither Mangum nor Montgomery granted interview requests. Montgomery, a Republican lobbyist in Georgia who was appointed to the board by Gov. Rick Scott, has said repeatedly that the president serves at the pleasure of the board.
But opinion is divided on whether the trustees have given her adequate support.
"I know the community is for her," said Miaisha Mitchell, a FAMU alumna who serves on the advisory board of the university's Center for Health Equity. "I don't represent all of the community, but folks I've talked to say she hasn't had an opportunity to show herself."
Mitchell also said "gender bias" had played a role in Mangum's troubles with the trustees, a charge echoed by Senate Democratic Leader Arthenia Joyner of Tampa.
"This is probably a concentrated effort to run her away," Joyner said. "Personally, I think (Montgomery) has a problem with women in leadership positions."
But Proctor scoffed at that interpretation.
"Men have been diminished" at the historically black FAMU, he said, noting that women now hold the positions of president, provost and president of the faculty senate. "Black men are catching hell up there."
Opinion is also divided on Mangum's effectiveness as president. Joyner called her "outstanding."
"From what I have been able to observe so far, she has done an exceptional job over the past year," Hobbs said.
But Proctor said, "The majority of the people don't like her," including the faculty.
Lawson said Mangum doesn't trust anyone.
"I told her I wanted her to be successful," he said. "I've been around for a long time, and I could keep her from running into roadblocks. … I was not trying to be hired or anything. I did that on three different occasions, and it did not work out."
Asked if he would re-apply to be FAMU's president should Mangum leave, Lawson said he didn't know. His brother, Kelvin, is vice chairman of the trustees and author of the motion to require comprehensive monthly reports from Mangum.
Merrill Schwartz, vice president for consulting at the Association of Governing Boards for Universities and Colleges, said the relationship between a president and board chairman should be based on "respect, trust and candor."
"There isn't a bright line between issues of policy and administration," Schwartz said. "If you have to ask, 'Who has the ultimate authority, the president or the board chair?,' something fundamental is missing in the relationship."
But the question of ultimate authority has long been a sore point between Mangum and Montgomery.
"Hanging up the phone in the middle of a conversation, yelling over the phone and verbally attacking staff in public places do not model excellence," she wrote in a January email to Montgomery, who was then vice-chairman of the board. "I am simply asking you to treat the university staff and me with civility when you call or otherwise engage us verbally."
"On several occasions you have spoken to me as if you are a superior speaking to a subordinate in the military," he replied the next day. "Please understand that your attacks, sustained bouts of insubordination and rude behavior in public and private conversation could trigger a serious public discussion about your fitness to remain as chief executive officer of Florida A&M University."
State Rep. Alan Williams, a Tallahassee Democrat who organized Wednesday's news conference of elected officials, confirmed that he'd called Montgomery the day before to ask him to resign.
"The role that Trustee Montgomery is in right now as chair, and his personality, is more like a bully and less like a chairman," Williams said. "That has a great impact on the fundraising, the morale and the enrollment."
But while Montgomery's leadership style isn't a good fit for his current post, Williams said, it might be highly effective at the state Capitol.
"If we need someone to go down and be a bully with the Legislature and make sure that FAMU was held harmless and fight for us, I would tell you to put Rufus Montgomery up to task," he said.