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News Clips 01/23/2013
The road back: Florida A&M addresses accreditation issues
Source: Tallahassee Democrat, 01/20/13
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By Doug Blackburn
Maurice Edington is guided by the principles of scientific inquiry. He knows only one way to approach a problem: Use analytical skills to assess the situation and develop a plan of action.
A chemist with a doctorate degree from Vanderbilt University, the 42-year-old Edington wears numerous hats at Florida A&M University, including one that has thrust him into the spotlight. He is FAMU’s liaison to its accrediting agency, Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, and on Dec. 10 its Commission on Colleges announced that FAMU was being placed on probation for 12 months.
The sanction was not the result of any action taken by Edington, or by a failure on his part to communicate with SACS. The probation sanction is the result of almost two years of institutional failures and turmoil at Florida’s only historically black public university, from an Office of Audit and Compliance that submitted summaries of audits that had not been performed to issues surrounding student safety that culminated with the hazing death of a drum major aboard a band bus.
Now it is up to Edington and a fellow scientist, interim President Larry Robinson —whose career in academia began as a nuclear chemist —to lead the charge as FAMU works to demonstrate to SACS that its probation should be lifted in 11 months.
Nothing less than the future of Florida Agricultural &Mechanical University is on the line. If SACS should decide in December to withdraw FAMU’s membership, it would no longer be eligible for federal contracts and grants, and its students would no longer receive federal financial aid.
“This is extremely serious. We are totally committed to retaining our accreditation,” Edington said.
December’s ruling by SACS marked the second time in less than six years that its Commission on Colleges has placed FAMU on probation. Citing deep-rooted financial issues, SACS put FAMU on probation for six months in 2007. The university was successful in getting the sanction lifted.
The current penalty is more far-reaching.
The ruling has implications beyond the university’s proud alumni base, or even Tallahassee. FAMU is one of 12 members of Florida’s State University System, and what happens at FAMU reflects to a certain extent on the entire state. SUS Chancellor Frank Brogan did not mince words when he learned of the Dec. 10 decision by SACS.
“I’m not sure people outside of education realize how serious this is. The loss of accreditation or even probationary status is not a typical move by SACS. It’s very atypical,” Brogan said.
“The common threads that you continue to find (at FAMU), which cross over to financial to athletics to leadership oversight, are inescapable and undeniable,” Brogan said. “To see this occur twice in just a couple of years is deeply troubling.”
SACS’ ruling did not occur in a vacuum. It came amid long-awaited investigative reports from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and Board of Governors.
It was preceded by the abrupt resignation of Charles O’Duor, vice president of the Office of Audit and Compliance, in November 2011 —just days before an independent law firm’s report was released detailing troubling issues in his department. It also was preceded by the July resignation of FAMU President James H. Ammons, whose relationship with the university’s Board of Trustees had grown increasingly untenable.
THE ROAD BACK
While FAMU administrators had yet to receive the in-depth report from SACS as of Friday morning —it is expected any day —they know in general terms what four standards it will cite and what the university needs to do to address them.
They are, as explained in SACS’ initial letter to FAMU: “operates with integrity in all matters, has qualified administrative and academic officers, exercises appropriate control over all its financial resources, and takes reasonable steps to provide a healthy, safe and secure environment for all the campus community.”
Each standard is serious, Edington explained, but the moment SACS identified integrity, one of its core principles, he knew a probation sanction was coming.
Edington and Robinson are quick to point out that the university already was working on each of the issues, or standards, cited by SACS.
The day after the Dec. 10 ruling, made at SACS’ annual meeting in Dallas, Edington and the rest of his internal SACS team joined Robinson on the stage at Lee Hall auditorium for a town hall meeting. They stressed that the university remains fully accredited, and fielded a variety of questions.
Then Edington and his core team —Shawnta Friday-Stroud (dean of the School of Business &Industry and the previous SACS liaison), Gia Pitter (associate vice president for institutional effectiveness), Genye Boston (English professor and director of the university’s Quality Enhancement Plan) and Vera Harper (chair of professional development in SBI) —began to work on a plan of action. The first task was to form a probation work group that consists of faculty, staff and administrative representatives from various units on campus. There will be a sub-group of 10-15 individuals, all of whom have been identified, Edington said.
“Over the next few weeks, after the main work group kicks in, they will identify people from their respective areas who need to be pulled in,” said Edington, who is also interim dean of the College of Science and Technology. “This could expand into a much larger, higher number of people involved.”
The university began working 10 months ago with the national accounting firm Ernst &Young to address the internal audits that had not been performed and develop best-practice standards for financial controls across the university. An Ernst &Young representative is expected to conduct a workshop with trustees at an upcoming meeting in order for board members to better understand proper accounting and bookkeeping practices. Following O’Duor’s resignation, FAMU hired Rick Givens, a certified public accountant who had worked for the state auditing department, to head the Office of Audit and Compliance.
FAMU also has devoted considerable time addressing hazing. It has held town halls for students and staff, and implemented new requirements for all student organizations. Two new positions have been created, a band compliance officer and special assistant to the president —specifically focused on hazing. FAMU announced on Friday that Bryan Smith had been hired to fill the special assistant position.
The integrity principle cited by SACS caught FAMU administrators off guard, Edington said.
“The information we provided explained what happened in the Office of Audit and Compliance. We explained that the person had submitted false audits,” Edington said. “The university has addressed the issue.
“Integrity is probably (SACS’) core value. I think it was an automatic trigger. There’s an honor principle underlying everything. It’s a serious issue having an individual violate that,” he added.
FAMU professor Narayan Persaud, president of the university’s Faculty Senate, wasn’t surprised to see SACS zero in on integrity and competence. He had raised it as an issue more than once during Ammons’ presidency, he said.
“From the (department) chairs all the way up to the provost’s office, I’ve said it was something that needed to be addressed. The faculty is also concerned about this from before,” Persaud said. “Probation for me is very serious. My concern is the university, not the individuals within the university.”
Edington frequently communicates with Michael Johnson, chief of staff for SACS’ Commission on Colleges. Edington is confident FAMU will meet every deadline for reports set by the accrediting agency and be more than ready when a SACS team visits FAMU for several days this fall to see first-hand if the measures the university has implemented are in fact working.
“I believe in the principle that institutions should work to maintain best practices. Our job is to make sure those things get implemented effectively, and we need time to demonstrate that what we’ve done and what we’re doing is effective,” Edington said.
The probation sanction is only one of three SACS reports sitting on Edington’s desk. He’s also immersed in a fifth-year interim report due in spring 2014, a standard but involved account every institution is required to provide on the way to its 10-year accreditation renewal. At FAMU, it involves 15 committees addressing 17 compliance standards.
Edington and his team also are responsible for a Title 4 monitoring report involving federal financial aid.
“What he has on his plate, it’s a huge responsibility,” Friday-Stroud, the previous SACS liaison for FAMU, said. “He’s very analytical, very methodical, very thoughtful. He’s also willing to beat the pavement. You have to get out and go to the different areas where you need the information.”
FAMU students, judging by the half-dozen who were interviewed during the past week, are confident the university will be taken off probation at the end of the year. Each student interviewed also was aware of the probation sanction announced last month.
Autumn Wells is a third-generation Rattler. The freshman broadcast journalism student and Tampa native said she never really considered attending another university, despite several scandals at FAMU that caught national attention prior to the start of her freshman year. The re-accreditation process is not the most difficult hurdle the institution has faced, nor insurmountable, she said.
Michael Dumas, a sophomore from Gary, Ind., majoring in biology, said FAMU being on probation is difficult, nonetheless, for everyone involved.
“It’s stressful for the teachers and students to deal with, because the administration has to cross their T’s and be accountable for the things they did or didn’t do. It’s stressful for people who have said at this school, ‘I have done nothing wrong. I’ve played by the rules, but now my degree too is at jeopardy.’ ”
Michael Jefferson, the student body vice president, said the new university administration, under the leadership of interim President Robinson, has taken a proactive, transparent approach to handling the probation.
“I think in the beginning students had a lot of questions,” Jefferson, 22, said. “It’s a scary thing when you hear SACS and accreditation and probation. They’re scary words and make people nervous. But Dr. Robinson’s team put out press releases and had a press conference in Lee Hall. They put out a video letting people know that we’re fully accredited and that our degrees still matter.”
The consensus from students, he said, is they are optimistic that FAMU will come out of the accreditation process a stronger institution.
Wells said one improvement she would like to see at the university is an increase in institutional organization and a higher sense of accountability.
“When it comes to keeping track and keeping account for students, this whole incident could have been avoided if someone had been keeping track of the lives that we have here, the lives that we take into the university,” Wells said.
However, despite some necessary organizational changes within the university, Wells said there’s a legacy of hard work and community she hopes will remain intact throughout and after the accreditation process.
“FAMU prepares you, as an African-American student, as someone who is going to face prejudice, for what’s going to happen in the real world,” Wells said. “That doesn’t need to change.”
THE BOTTOM LINE
The probation sanction leveled by SACS was barely mentioned last Wednesday and Thursday at the Board of Governors meeting in Gainesville, the body that oversees the State University System as a whole. Board members listened to an overview of BOG’s 13-month investigation into hazing and a breakdown in institutional controls at the university. They heard Chancellor Brogan vow to work with FAMU and provide regular updates at future BOG meetings.
Behind the scenes is a different story. Robinson, Edington and others at FAMU are communicating frequently with Brogan and staff members at the Board of Governors.
But Robinson believes it is essential that administrators at FAMU demonstrate that they are in charge of the university. It is what officials at SACS will want to see, he said, and what needs to be happening in any case.
“We’re very grateful to the chancellor’s office and his staff and we will continue to keep them informed with every development,” Robinson said. “But the bottom line is, we need to be able to demonstrate we are running the university. We need to show we are able to run Florida A&M University.”