Robinson named FAMU president, faces challenges

Board of Trustees vote unanimously for Robinson

Larry Robinson
Larry Robinson

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – After serving three times as the university's interim leader, Larry Robinson on Thursday was named the 12th president of Florida A&M University in a unanimous vote by the school's trustees.

Robinson had been the interim FAMU president since September 2016, when the board of trustees ousted former President Elmira Mangum.

Robinson, who has spent two decades at the school as a faculty member and administrator, previously served as interim president from 2012 to 2014 and in 2007.

The trustees' vote makes Robinson, 62, who holds a doctorate in nuclear chemistry from Washington University, the permanent president of FAMU, which is one of top historically black public universities in the nation. The vote is subject to confirmation by the Board of Governors, which oversees the state university system.

“I am extremely humbled but perhaps even more overjoyed to have this opportunity to help move this university forward,” Robinson told the trustees. “I understand the awesomeness of this responsibility and I will not take it lightly.”

Kelvin Lawson, chairman of the FAMU trustees, said the board took a deliberate approach in deciding to hire Robinson and “didn't rush to an outcome that would have been premature.”

Lawson said a key decision was winning support from the state Board of Governors to allow the FAMU trustees to decide whether to conduct a national search for a new president or to hire Robinson.

The board opted to hire Robinson after using a consultant to outline a profile for the president's job and after conducting an in-depth evaluation of the interim president's first year in office.

Lawson said Thursday's unanimous vote by the trustees was “a firm statement to Dr. Robinson that we all truly believe he is the person for the job.”

“I think he's up for the task. His leadership team is up for the task,” Lawson said after the vote. “He has the full support of this board to get things done.”

It was clear from the recent evaluation of Robinson's performance and the reaction to his permanent hiring that the new president has improved the administration's relationship with key FAMU constituencies, including students, faculty, alumni and trustees. Mangum, the former president, had an uneven relationship with the trustees.

“Dr. Robinson came into a volatile situation and achieved a calming and effective resolution,” Robert Woody, a trustee, wrote in his evaluation.

Bettye Grable, a trustee and president of the FAMU Faculty Senate, said in her evaluation that Robinson's leadership had brought “stability and accountability” to the university, while noting his “great understanding of the university's culture.”

In an interview after the vote, Grable, who is an associate professor in the School of Journalism and Graphic Communication, said Robinson has connected with faculty members, evidenced by his regular attendance at Faculty Senate meetings.

She said he has responded to some of the faculty's concerns, including authorizing a study of instructors' classroom workloads. Grable said she was pleased that Robinson was taking “ownership” of the workload issue rather than blaming it on past administrators.

“That's the kind of person we need at the helm of Florida A&M,” Grable said. “It's kind of like `Thank God, we can all now really move forward to where we want to go.' ”

But mixed with the praise, trustees and Robinson acknowledged numerous challenges facing the university.

FAMU lost more than $11 million in performance funding this year when it finished among the bottom three state universities in the Board of Governors' annual review, which measures things like graduation rates, retention of students and research funding.

Lawson said among the immediate challenges facing Robinson is improving the success rate for FAMU graduates who take professional exams in fields like pharmacy, nursing and law.

FAMU officials were embarrassed by an April survey that showed only 59 percent of its pharmacy graduates had passed the 2016 exam. The 2017 success rate has risen to 83 percent, but Lawson said it needs to match the 90 percent national passing rate and it needs to remain constant.

Lawson said FAMU will also be challenged if the Board of Governors begins to use a four-year graduation rate in its annual performance evaluation, with the school having an 18 percent rate in the cohort of students who graduated in 2016.

But Lawson said improvements are being made in many of the performance measurements, and it may be enough to move FAMU back into the group of state universities that will share performance funding in the 2018-2019 academic year.

In his brief acceptance speech, Robinson said the challenges “are significant.”

“But there is nothing that is out there that we as a community, as a family, won't be able to overcome,” he said.