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Chairman of FAMU Trustees Seeks Tighter Control of President

July 21, 2015 - 9:30pm
Elmira Mangum
Elmira Mangum

Little more than a year into her job, Florida A&M University President Elmira Mangum on Tuesday faced criticism from some of the university's trustees as they evaluated her performance.

A presidential evaluation-committee meeting was tense, reflecting the gap between Mangum's belief that she should have day-to-day control of the university and board chairman Rufus Montgomery's move to place her on a "performance improvement plan."

"Ninety percent of our problems go away when our one employee acknowledges that we are her employer," Montgomery said. "We need to assert a level of accountability."

Montgomery has repeatedly complained about Mangum's hiring decisions and her failure to promptly return calls and emails from trustees. His suggestion of a performance-improvement plan remained just that, however, pending an Aug. 5 meeting of the full board.

Tuesday's meeting also reflected a gap between the trustees' evaluations of the president and her own assessment of her performance. The 13 trustees found that Mangum "does not meet" expectations in four of 10 categories --- organizational management, internal relations, board and governance relations, and personal characteristics and values.

Two trustees, Spurgeon McWilliams and Robert Woody, found that Mangum had not met expectations in any of the categories.

Mangum asked to speak early in Tuesday's meeting, defended her record and reminded the trustees of FAMU's status at the time she was hired.

"When I arrived on campus last year, Florida A&M was struggling to emerge from years of turmoil due to problems with fiscal responsibility," she said. "It wasn't a surprise when FAMU missed out on millions of dollars from the state last year after scoring last in benchmarks that were tied to performance."

Mangum also noted that when she was hired, FAMU was still dealing with the fallout from the 2011 hazing death of Marching 100 drum major Robert Champion. Also, a legislative plan to separate the joint FAMU-Florida State University College of Engineering --- "two separate schools in unequal units," she said --- surfaced during her first week as president in April 2014.

And since 2002, Mangum added, the university had had two presidents and three interim presidents.

In a phone interview, former FAMU trustee Marjorie Turnbull said that when the board selected Mangum, its greatest concern was the university's "long history of troubled financial management practices," which had culminated in a serious threat to its accreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. FAMU had lost more than 25 percent of its enrollment over three years and had just gotten off probationary status with its accreditation.

"The failure over time to resolve these problems seriously hurt the academic side," Turnbull, who left the board in May, said. "And that's why we felt we had to bring in a change agent. ... It was clear that we had to have someone with experience and expertise to bring about dramatic change in this area."

Turnbull credited Mangum with moving FAMU toward a firm financial footing by putting in place "best practices expected of all universities in the system."

The president's relationship with the trustees, however, has deteriorated almost since she began.

When trustees voted 11-2 to hire her, McWilliams and Glen Gilzean, Jr, who has since left the board, were the lone holdouts. At the time Montgomery voted for Mangum, he called her "exceptionally qualified. … I believe she will be a change agent for the university." By the following month, however, he had joined McWilliams and Gilzean in a failed effort to reduce Mangum's salary during contract negotiations. So had Kelvin Lawson, now the board's vice chairman.

The situation reached a boil last month, when five lawmakers who are FAMU graduates sent a letter to Mori Hosseini, chairman of the state university system's Board of Governors. They asked for an inquiry into the trustees' actions and whether trustees were "improperly reaching beyond legally proscribed authority." The letter came from Senate Minority Leader Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa; Sen. Dwight Bullard, D-Miami; Rep. Mia Jones, D-Jacksonville; Rep. Shevrin Jones, D-West Park; and Rep. Bobby Powell, D-Riviera Beach.

"As we're sure you are aware, the obligations of any university's trustees are fairly straightforward, and are limited to policy,'' the lawmakers wrote. "They ought not and do not include involvement in the day-to-day operations of the institutions. … Evidently, Mr. Montgomery has enlisted a number of his fellow board members to join him as they attempt to directly interject themselves into such operations, and demand that President Mangum subvert her own authority by yielding to theirs."

The inquiry is pending, and the situation was further inflamed when Mangum agreed to a new structure at the College of Engineering, making Florida State the college's “fiscal agent” --- among other changes.

Despite the tension, however, both sides gave some ground Tuesday. Mangum pledged that she and her leadership team would be more communicative with the trustees.

"There are many items that I've taken to heart, and I have a big to-do list," she said.

And most of the trustees agreed to meet her halfway.

"I appreciate the stature that she has sought to return us to," said trustee Belinda Shannon. "I think we have to look at this in the context of the first year."

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