THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, June 22, 2012
Brandon Larrabee, The News Service of Florida
A clearly skeptical Board of Governors committee approved Florida A&M University's plan for the coming year, but only after sharply questioning President James Ammons over the institution's low graduation rate and heavy debt load on students.
At the same time, board members said they would be hard-pressed to approve a 15 percent tuition hike that Florida A&M, like many other universities, has requested.
It was the second time this month that Ammons has faced strong pushback on his leadership at FAMU from a panel overseeing the school. Two-thirds of the university's board of trustees voted for a motion of no-confidence in the president June 7. During a break in that meeting, Ammons briefly considered resigning, but has since said he will remain.
The criticism Ammons faced from the Board of Governors on Wednesday was concerned less with the hazing and related scandals that have buffeted one of the nation's largest historically black universities and more with long-standing problems related to how often and how quickly FAMU students move through the school.
"I want FAMU to go forward," board member Mori Hosseini said during a meeting of the Strategic Planning Committee. "I really want to go forward. I think we owe it to our students. ... They deserve better."
Hosseini was the only member to bring up the FAMU trustees' vote.
"I personally would have a hell of time approving anything when you come before us with a vote of no confidence from your own board," he said.
FAMU's six-year graduation rate for students entering college for the first time in 2005 was 39 percent, the lowest in the State University System and a number that has been flat over the last four years. Only three other state universities -- Florida Atlantic University, Florida International University and Florida Gulf Coast University -- have six-year graduation rates below 45 percent.
Board members focused their criticism on FAMU's practice of allowing a sizable number of "profile admits" -- students who don't meet the same admissions standards as more traditional students. Many board members pushed Ammons to nudge those students toward local state and community colleges.
"I don't understand why you're taking so many that are obviously not prepared to do your work and then say you're struggling to understand why they can't get through in four years, five years," board member Norman Tripp said. "Until you correct that problem, I think you're kidding yourself."
Ammons defended the practice.
"At the end of the day, FAMU has an historical mission even today where we allow students who have the potential to come to the university and have the experience of a four-year college," he said.
The president also stressed that the 15 percent tuition increase the university is asking for -- which will be taken up tomorrow -- is needed to help boost the graduation rate. Except for the 30 percent of the funds legally required to be used for financial aid, Ammons said, the remainder of the money will go to hire full-time faculty and advisers and purchase equipment, all with the aim of encouraging students to remain at the school.
"If we're going to achieve the goals that we have set for improving graduation rates and reducing student loan debts, we have to have the 15 percent," Ammons told reporters after the meeting.
The board asked Ammons to come back with further details about FAMU's graduation plan in September.