Chris Timmons: FAMU trustees’ egos fail school’s best interests

famu

Let’s list the reasons why the Florida A&M University board of trustees is a total farce. No, it’s too much labor.

Better to say the infestation of egos has made that board the laughingstock of state university boards of trustees. Or should.

Chairman Rufus Montgomery again has found a way to interject his sexist machismo into a sustained, long-plotted game to wear out FAMU President Elmira Mangum. For whatever reason, the rest of the board has gone along with it.

Let’s rewind: This past Wednesday, trustees closed in on approving a reprimand of Mangum, for “lack of communication” and general inattentiveness to, in a busy and demanding job, 13 egoists.

A hint of rationality by a student trustee, though, allowed the trustees to save (some) face by asking for a 30-day status update from Mangum and her administration about how she would address the trifling complaints of the trustees, actually Montgomery.

The public criticism of the trustees is astonishing for two reasons: It came out of nowhere, and the complaints arrive as the trustees prepare Mangum’s evaluation after she already had delivered her self-evaluation.

Oddly, trustees thought their notional reprimand should not be seen as a commentary on Mangum’s performance. But in what normal job is a reprimand not a sign of trouble?

As for the substance of the complaints, no sane person would bother to justify them. For one, the list of grievances, as detailed in the Tallahassee Democrat, are either vague or small-bore.

According to Montgomery, Mangum is a bad communicator, although she sends the trustees’ weekly updates.

She offends self-appointed, and marginal, players in local black politics. She recently forgot to trade calendars with the provost before leaving for a trip to China. And on and on.

It’s nothing to pout over publicly. But according to Montgomery and his posse, a severe act of presidential hubris has taken place, and so they must humble the school’s first female president.

The latter deserves greater emphasis.

Although in an article on the fracas, the Tallahassee Democrat, emphasized that Montgomery has a well-established pattern of challenging FAMU presidents, it failed to mention he has a well-established pattern of berating women.

Nearly a year ago, Mangum said she felt “bullied” by Montgomery. Several years ago, a woman politico in Republican circles recalled Montgomery’s profane, vitriolic harangues during a post-election conference. More bluntly, he called her an “F—-king loser.”

The sort of sexist aggression coming from Montgomery is the norm for black institutions with woman heads.

Since the beginning of her term, for example, Alabama State University president Gwendolyn Boyd has faced extraordinary resistance from her trustees, especially its male members. Like Mangum, Boyd is an accomplished administrator from an elite school (Boyd, John Hopkins; Mangum, Cornell) and a first-time university president.

That Montgomery is allowed to display, in disturbingly aggressive ways, his male chauvinism is largely because he has connections within the Gov. Rick Scott administration and is said to have influence within it.

No less significant in the battle between the trustees and Mangum is the cultural upheaval Mangum has been leading within the university:

  • She has hired a competent, varied staff with little regard to FAMU ties and no nepotism;
  • She has openly addressed the problems within the university’s athletic program (academically low-performing athletes and frightful budget deficits);
  • She has raised the fundraising standards, enhanced “town-gown” relations; and
  • She is steadily applying an institutionwide standard of budgetary probity and auditing efficacy that will ensure greater transparency and accountability for a university, that over the years, has been bereft of both.

That upsets the insiders, who accused a Mangum appointee of offending the “culture” of FAMU. Now, the trustees are striking back on behalf of that “culture” (pun intended: FAMU’s athletic mantra is, “Strike, strike, and strike again”) and doing so at a time when the university can least afford the dysfunction.

Increasingly, according to Inside Higher Education, the state of Florida is embracing a performance-based funding chimera that is leaving FAMU behind. Last year, FAMU was last in the funding criteria used by the Florida Board of Governors to measure university success with its students.

Partly for historic reasons, partly because of its mission, FAMU has not measured well in its six-year graduation rates: It has a student population that is hugely disadvantaged compared to its State University System counterparts. That is, a significant chunk of incoming students will take remedial courses and 90 percent of its students are financial aid recipients.

That said, the larger battle for FAMU’s future is being played out in this Battle of the Egos. Sad to say, it is Mangum’s to lose.

Chris Timmons’ work has appeared in several Florida newspapers. When not writing, he is a restaurant professional and bird-watcher. He lives in Tallahassee. 

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