FAMU should look outside for leadership

Published July 14, 2012

All Floridians are better off now that James Ammons has resigned as president of Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, the state's only public historically black institution of higher learning.

When Ammons was hired as FAMU's 10th president in 2007, I said publicly and wrote that it was a bad selection. FAMU, like most other historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs, has a long tradition of hiring and promoting its administrators from among its ranks or by bringing back alumni.

Ample evidence shows that more often than not, the HBCU practice of hiring from within creates intellectual incest: a culture of arrogance, blind allegiance, cronyism, nepotism, normalization of mediocrity and incompetence, and the inculcation of a bunker mentality.

Everything about the Ammons hire spelled trouble from the beginning, and this mistake will be repeated if trustees hire another of their own. Ammons was born in Winter Haven and attended public school there. He graduated from FAMU with a bachelor's degree in political science. Before becoming FAMU president, he was an associate professor there, associate vice president for academic affairs, professor and provost and vice president for academic affairs.

During his initial job interview with the board of trustees in 2007, he described himself as a "native son" who deserved to be president, who would "rekindle the spirit of Florida A&M University." He bragged: "You can turn off your porch light. Our son has come home."

I was on FAMU's campus shortly after Ammons was hired. I witnessed a homecoming. Many banners announced, "Welcome Home." A few read, "Our Homeboy is Back." The atmosphere was electric, and Ammons played the role of the messiah to the hilt.

At first glance, nothing seemed to be wrong. In reality, a lot was wrong. Ammons had returned as a member of the FAMU family, the consummate team player. Being the insider put him in the unique position of knowing the important players in the system and the unpopular issues to avoid.

Scores of the professors he had taught with were still on campus, and staff members he had known when he was provost and vice president were still there. These ties, along with others in Tallahassee's black community, made it virtually impossible for him to make difficult decisions.

He failed, for example, to fire employees responsible for flawed audits sent to lawmakers, and he retained incompetent professors who passed students unprepared for university-level work. He was complicit in the abysmal four-and six-year graduation rates. And he did not stop dangerous student activities such as hazing in the marching band that caused a death. Why? The famous Marching 100 was Ammons' pride and joy as president and as an alumnus. The band had been integral to his life as a young undergraduate.

The need for a vigorous search for an outsider to be FAMU's next president is obvious. The trustees meet Monday to discuss the process for selecting a new leader.

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The stakes are too high to not look outside. Time was, only conservative lawmakers and activists were concerned with FAMU's paradoxical existence: a historically black school still enjoying public funding in the era of racial diversity and opportunities.

Today, deep budget constraints, tougher views on leadership and accountability, more focus on empirical results and the value of a college education and fairer access to admission for blacks and other changes have resulted in more progressive voices joining conservatives in demanding that HBCUs justify their continued existence as we know them.

For these and other reasons, FAMU needs to hire a leader who has exemplary executive, management and leadership skills, who can raise money, oversee staff and maintain academic standards. The nation's best presidents are approachable, many even charismatic. They can handle constructive criticism, they have humility and they are comfortable with the press and legislators.

Florida taxpayers are fed up with the drumbeat of bad news out of FAMU, and the board of trustees should pay attention. The state's only publicly funded HBCU owes taxpayers an open and earnest search for Ammons' successor.

This search — the most important in the school's contemporary history — should welcome outside candidates, including white applicants. This search should be about competence, vision and commitment to higher education.