By TIA MITCHELL
The Florida Times-Union
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida A&M University is on the upswing in many ways: Audits are clean, accreditation appears on solid footing, the marching band has returned without incident after a hazing scandal, and freshmen attending orientation are proudly wearing orange “Class of 2019” T-shirts.
Most incoming students, though, probably are oblivious to problems inside Lee Hall, an iconic building that houses the offices of President Elmira Mangum and university administrators.
Mangum has been on the job a little over a year, but what some refer to as questionable decision-making and a lack of political finesse have strained her relationship with some faculty, FAMU supporters and, most important, the FAMU Board of Trustees. The 13 trustees are preparing Mangum’s first evaluation and, if things don’t improve to their satisfaction, they have the authority to fire her.
Mangum is expected to receive low marks regarding her leadership style, communication and engagement with stakeholder groups when trustees meet July 21.
Among her perceived missteps: failure to communicate with board members about key decisions and personnel changes, leaving a faculty feeling sometimes ignored or marginalized by her administration, and creating a feeling among alumni and supporters that they are not valued.
But no one grades the trustees, who have their own faults. Mangum’s supporters accuse board members, especially outspoken Chairman Rufus Montgomery, of micromanaging and behavior that borders on bullying.
FAMU faculty, alumni and supporters say they back Mangum and want her to succeed. Still, they agree that Montgomery raises valid points about her shortcomings, even though some criticize his perceived arrogance and confrontational style.
With 10,000 students signed up to attend FAMU this fall, will the officials responsible for running the school mend fences and learn how to play nice?
“We don’t need to kick up dirt and be mad at one another,” said trustee Cleve Warren, who lives in Jacksonville and is a Mangum ally. “We should be talking about how to make this work.”
Mangum has had a steep learning curve since arriving from Cornell University, a private Ivy League institution. FAMU is a public university and historically black college for which people expect her to be an institutional cheerleader, fundraiser, political operative and academic chief.
She arrived in Tallahassee in April 2014 without ever before serving in such a lofty leadership role.
There was no honeymoon.
Mangum was tested days into her tenure when John Thrasher – then a powerful state senator _ inserted an amendment into the Senate budget that would have immediately split the joint FAMU-Florida State University College of Engineering. Mangum barely knew the players involved, but it was her job to make things right.
She did so with the help of House leaders who agreed that the deal was not fully baked. Lawmakers and FAMU supporters praised Mangum for her even keel and help in forging a compromise.
However, those resulting changes at the College of Engineering are providing fuel for Mangum’s critics.
In May a reinvigorated Engineering School advisory board, which includes Mangum and Thrasher, now FSU’s president, made changes that sparked controversy. The committee agreed unanimously that FSU would become the College of Engineering’s “fiscal agent” while FAMU would have oversight of its dean.
Thrasher briefed the FSU Board of Trustees on June 3 about those changes, but members of the FAMU board say they have yet to hear directly from Mangum about what she had agreed to – or why.
“I heard from the `street’ committee,” trustee Torey Alston said last week, using a slang term for the rumor mill. “But I haven’t heard those details from the president.”
Mangum declined the Times-Union’s interview request but responded to questions in writing. She said she kept trustees updated about the College of Engineering changes, but backup documentation that she shared with the newspaper shows her report lacked details about the transfer of duties to FSU that raised the most concern.
FAMU faculty and alumni complained for two weeks through Facebook groups and via blogs that Mangum had ceded too much control to FSU; this despite the rival school’s stated interest in taking over the Engineering School and the state’s history of favoring FSU when it comes to programs and resources. There was no public response from FAMU until Thursday, when a FAQ was published online.
Warren said Mangum must react more quickly to small issues before they become major.
There are other examples of where Mangum has gone astray, many of which were outlined in an 89-page dossier compiled by Montgomery to explain why he believes the president deserved low marks on her evaluation.
Members of the Tallahassee Urban League also have accused Mangum of tarnishing the organization’s relationship with FAMU, although she said a letter they crafted was misleading and full of inaccuracies.
Mangum recently battled with the faculty union about raises. After encouraging trustees to take her side, state-level union leaders warned in a letter to Mangum that her actions violated collective-bargaining tenets.
Hiring decisions have embarrassed Mangum; most notably athletic director Kellen Winslow. The NFL legend lasted eight months before resigning in December. He was best known during his tenure for firing Earl Holmes, the school’s popular football coach and an alum, during 2014 homecoming festivities and mocking students and alumni who disapproved. Holmes filed suit in January for wrongful termination, seeking $400,000 remaining on his four-year contract, plus damages.
Trustees say Mangum doesn’t keep them in the loop, especially when big decisions are on the horizon or when she is dealing with major issues. Their job is oversight and governance; hers is the day-to-day operations.
“I’ve had a number of challenges with this current administration,” Montgomery said during a June 9 trustees meeting at which he shared his report. “In some cases there have been some attempts to make it personal, but it’s not personal. I love FAMU like you love FAMU.”
Given an opportunity to respond at the same meeting, Mangum said she sometimes did not believe she had board members’ confidence. She said carrying out her responsibilities had become personal, more than during any other job she’s has had that involved working with a governing board.
“I have never had the experience where my leadership team has been disrespected, privately in conversation that are not on record on a continuous basis,” she said. “And this is the case that I think that I have here at Florida A&M by our chair.”
Montgomery, when reached, would not agree to an on-the-record interview. He requested questions in writing but did not respond to them.