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Chris Timmons: For a better FAMU, Rufus Montgomery needs to go

Rufus Montgomery, belligerent chairman of Florida A&M University’s Board of Trustees, remains unbowed:

I will honor the decision and level of confidence that Board members showed in my leadership earlier this month when they unanimously re-elected me to a full two-year term as chairman. While certain elected officials have always stood behind FAMU, their vantage point doesn’t afford them the same level of interaction or responsibility required of the chairman of the Board and other trustees. For the good of the institution and to prevent charges of undue political interference, I hope that our elected officials will allow our Board to do the job we were appointed to do.

The domineering and vexing Montgomery was asked to step down by powerful FAMU alumni on Wednesday: Democrats state Sen. Dwight Bullard of Miami, state Sen. Arthenia Joyner of Tampa, state Rep. Mia Jones  of Jacksonville, state Rep. Alan Williams of Tallahassee), and Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum.

They say the infighting and “personality conflicts” between the university’s president, Elmira Mangum, and Montgomery has to stop for the good of that institution. Since Mangum was hired last year, Montgomery has been the proverbial thorn in her side.

Usually, that might mean he’s doing his job: making sure that the university is being well run and the president is held to her contract for the benefit of the university’s reputation and general success.

But that is not quite it. Montgomery has been weirdly sadistic in his view of his role. It is the reason why, along with others, that he is accused of having a grudge against Mangum because she’s a woman at the top of the professional pyramid.

All came to a head Monday, though, when Mangum wrote a memorandum accusing Montgomery of violating her employee rights, according to university regulations.

According to Mangum’s memorandum, she was performing a personnel evaluation when Montgomery abruptly (and necessarily, rudely) interrupted to perform a Nuremberg-type interrogation on the telephone.

She replied that she’d like to meet all Montgomery’s questions with a thoughtful response, if only she could reschedule some of her previously agreed-to appointments to make room for his interrogatory. He accused her of insubordination.

Montgomery’s actions fly in the face of the “truce” both declared after Mangum’s less-than-glowing evaluation a month ago, which included a low score for communication and professional collegiality between her and trustees. Both Montgomery and Mangum were suppose “reset” their relationship and seek to get along for the good of FAMU.

Moreover, the evaluation itself was a joke. FAMU shows remarkably good vital signs: FAMU is among Forbes’ Best Colleges in America for 2015; more major contributions have been made to the university than previous years; Mangum has been declared by her peers a “global education leader”; she was on Ebony’s list of the “Power 100” — that is, among the most powerful African-Americans in the country, and so on.

Let’s not forget that, upon coming in, she met then-Sen. John Thrasher’s attack upon FAMU’s stake in a joint engineering enterprise with astute diplomacy and produced a double win for FAMU and Florida taxpayers. Who-rah! The program, if detached at the whim of a powerful politician, would have cost taxpayers $1 billion.

So the mixed message Montgomery, and even the whole of the Board of Trustees, has sent is troubling on the face of it, but could also testify to her success: She’s attacking the institutional rot at FAMU and that has some scared. So be it.

It appears that Bullard, Williams, and Gillum — a new generation of FAMU alumni, know the new pressures historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) face in the current political and educational context.

Broadly speaking, there is more outside pressure for HBCUs to hold themselves to a higher standard — notably, from President Barack Obama.

Increasingly, HBCUs are having their relevancy challenged in a post-integration environment where the best black students can freely elect to attend institutions outside the HBCU orbit.

While presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has promised to invest anew in HBCUs (somewhere around $25 billion), that does not guarantee the future of these institutions when state-by-state investment in higher education has gone steadily down since the 1970s — a high-water mark for public education in United States history.

So yes, the stakes are too high for FAMU to add to the list of all-too-soon departed presidents (five in the past decade). Mangum is an academic wunderkind.

She will do the job, if given the support. Next on the item list of crucial importance is FAMU’s Work Plan to improve its graduation rates.

Too many young blacks (especially young men) are trapped in the barren prison of low expectation and the Orwellian dystopia of sociological data sets for  FAMU’s trustees to delay any longer.

It is time for Rufus Montgomery to step down. Really, long past time.

Chris Timmons is a writer living in Tampa. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

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