TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – As Florida A&M University grapples with an ongoing dispute between its president and board chairman, two state higher-education officials said Wednesday the university is heading in the right direction despite its leadership woes.
University system Chancellor Marshall Criser was upbeat about FAMU's future, despite another flare-up last week between FAMU President Elmira Mangum and FAMU trustees Chairman Rufus Montgomery.
"I can't deny that there's been noise around the edges," said Criser, following a meeting with Mangum and Florida State University President John Thrasher at FAMU's Lee Hall. "(But) down at the heart of that, there have been some really great decisions made by this board, by this administration, that are going to be the best thing for FAMU students, and I believe that that's the right direction for everybody to be focused on."
"The university's on track, absolutely," he added.
Matthew Carter, a member of the Board of Governors that oversees Florida's 12 public universities, said he was more focused on FAMU's newly approved work plan than on disagreements between Mangum and Montgomery. Mangum was hired as president last year after serving as vice president for planning and budget at Cornell University.
"I don't think the relationship is broken," Carter said, noting that he was speaking for himself. "But I think you've got a situation, you've got a change of administrations, and any time you've got a change of administration, you've got people bringing their personalities to it. … I think the university's bigger than all this. And both those people are consummate professionals. I know them both. They'll get beyond this and move on, because it's in the best interest of the university."
For instance, Wednesday's meeting of Criser, Thrasher and Mangum addressed the FAMU-FSU College of Engineering. The college was one of the issues that roiled the president's dealings with her board, especially when Mangum agreed to a new structure that made Florida State the program's "fiscal agent" -- without notifying the FAMU trustees.
That caused widespread concern in the FAMU community, which has lost programs to Florida State in the past and tends to be wary of ceding power to the larger school. Mangum, the first modern FAMU president who did not attend the university, hadn't foreseen the outcry.
But Criser said the working relationship between the two universities at their shared engineering program was "strengthening every day" under the new arrangement.
"What you have is two really good administrations working together," he said. "And that's a commitment that I think we've now forged over the past year." He said the College of Engineering had been improved, if only by moving students out of portable buildings. "These were trailers, and now they're in classrooms," he said.
Criser and Carter said most of what they knew about the relationship between Mangum and Montgomery came from media reports.
"What's not being covered is what this administration and what this board actually accomplished," Criser said. He pointed to a recently approved work plan for FAMU that Mangum and the trustees had developed. "It is honest to FAMU's tradition, and to its mission, but at the same time I believe they have come up with an approach to how they serve their students, how they recruit their students, that is going to lead to a very exciting future," Criser said.
Carter said the Board of Governors is focused on "performance metrics" -- and that the state universities should do the same.
"They have to adhere to those performance metrics," he said. "Graduation rates. Reducing those student-loan debts. Retention rates. Jobs, both public sector and private sector, going to the military, going to graduate school -- those are the kind of things we're looking for."
As to the role of the state university system in the FAMU leadership dispute, Carter said he didn't think mediation by the Board of Governors was necessary.
Tallahassee attorney Steve Uhlfelder, who has served on the Board of Governors and chaired its predecessor, the Board of Regents, said he has confidence in Criser to help solve the leadership fight.
"It may even take the governor, because he appoints the trustees," Uhlfelder said.
But he also said the conflict between FAMU's president and its board "can't continue."
"No board should interfere with the daily operations of the university the way it appears they have been," he said. "We didn't interfere with decisions the (university) presidents made. Maybe the Board of Governors needs to define their role, or at least explain it."