Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

Course Correction at FAMU

Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

Course Correction at FAMU

Article excerpt

Dr. James Ammons takes bold action to mitigate financial crises.

When Dr. James Ammons took the helm of his alma mater, Florida A&M University, he inherited a nationally recognized school facing numerous crises.

Ammons, who served as provost of FAMU during its heyday in the 1990s, knew the school was mired in trouble with the state, having accumulated dozens of state auditor questions about its financial operations resulting in two years of unacceptable state audits. A legislative watchdog task force had even been established out of concern that the school's fiscal problems were so widespread that the state would have to take over.

To make matters worse, Ammons got news in his first week on the job in July 2007 that FAMU, once recognized as an academic model for other colleges, was being placed on "probation" for six months by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS). The accrediting agency, based in Decatur, Ga., had serious questions about several academic programs at FAMU.

Within a year, the problems Ammons inherited were resolved. After several months of 14-hour days, a team led by Teresa Hardee, his chief financial officer (who followed him from N.C. Central University, his prior presidential post), cleaned up the financial operations and earned the school a clean bill of health. Meanwhile, Ammons, who had chaired accrediting teams for several other schools, swung into action on the SACS issues. Soon, SACS was satisfied and reaffirmed the school's accreditation.

No sooner had the Rattler's ship been righted than it began encountering the strong economic headwinds that were suddenly shaking much of the nation's economy to its core. FAMU and many of its peers around the country, particularly public colleges, began seeing income fall precipitously.

At FAMU, state support has been cut by tens of millions of dollars since Ammons became president. It has reached a point where tuition revenue for the 2011-2012 school year is expected to exceed state aid at FAMU for the first time in the school's history.

Against this backdrop today, Ammons is championing a major restructuring of the school, marked by retrenchment from many activities and programs offered during its glory days of expansion.

Scores of administrative service employees are being terminated as part of the "new" FAMU plan that is using technology to do the jobs once done by people. Nearly a dozen academic programs, including master's degree offerings, have been eliminated. Adjunct and part-time faculty are being eliminated. Tuition has been boosted dramatically (15 percent for the second year in a row). Admissions standards have been tightened. A new emphasis is being placed on retention and graduation, not just enrollment. Enrollment hit a record high last fall of 13,277.

"I don't think anybody expected we would have the sustained downturn in the economy," Ammons says in a recent telephone interview, reflecting on the newest round of economic challenges facing the school and his roller-coaster ride as FAMU president. "This was the reward we got for dealing with all the issues when we came in." He says falling revenue, especially state financial support, has forced FAMU to slash its annual budget by steadily larger amounts - 7 percent, 10 percent, 12 percent and more ? every year since his arrival in 2007. Collectively, he has cut more than $34 million in real costs from his budget in four years, including one 10percent university-wide cut in expenses.

"There were people who thought we had more magic left, that we would find a way to keep everyone employed and keep everything in place," says Ammons, characterizing the restructuring decision as a personally painful one. "We went through three rounds [of cuts] and kept every program and employee," he says. "When the next round came [an 8 percent cut of nearly $8 million for the 201 1 -2012 budget], all we had left were people. …

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