MAXWELL: OPENING UP ON FAMU
7/22/2007 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of The St Petersburg Times Newspaper
Some say Castell Bryant, the former interim head of FAMU, was abrasive. She says she’s focused and determined.

Q & A: CASTELL V. BRYANT

When the Florida Board of Governors hired Castell Bryant in 2005 as the interim president of Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, hopes ran high that she would remedy many of the problems plaguing the state’s lone public historically black university.
Known for outspokenness and a no-nonsense management style, Bryant brought a crusader’s zeal to the job. As the university’s first female leader, she implemented measures of accountability, fired some employees, shut down wasteful programs and brought a level of transparency never before seen at FAMU.
Soon, however, she alienated much of the campus and found herself under attack. On May 31, Bryant resigned.
Times editorial writer and columnist Bill Maxwell interviewed Bryant at her Miami Lakes home on July 12.
When the Board of Governors and FAMU’s Board of Trustees asked you to come out of retirement and become interim president to fix the crises at your alma mater, did you have serious reservations about accepting this big job?
I had concerns. I received a number of calls from FAMU graduates and others encouraging me. I was not interested in the position, because I was looking forward to retirement. When it was announced that the BOT was looking for an interim president, the calls increased. I had conversations with some trusted friends. Then I had conversations with my family. When I reached a comfort level that I should pursue the “opportunity,” I applied. When the position was offered, I accepted with concerns. I accepted believing that I could make a difference. I knew it was going be difficult. I knew it was going be painful, but I felt that it was something for me to do at this time in my life.
Looking back, what was your greatest achievement, and where did you fail?
I had a number of failures. My biggest one was my inability to create an environment where all the people that say they love the university could work together for the betterment of FAMU.
Of course, there were also specific failures: I did not spend as much time with groups on campus – students, faculty and staff – as was needed, and I allowed the negative voices of the alumni to interfere with my relationship and interactions with all the alumni. I should have found a way to use the negative voices as a guide to reaching the masses.
My greatest achievement was creating an environment where the bad and ugly of FAMU became publicly known along with the good. The way to solve a problem is to first admit one exists. The image that everything at FAMU is great is not true. Being open about this reality was and is necessary if we are ever going to be a really great university.
In some circles, it was felt that being open and honest on campus about the changes needed was the worst thing that had ever happened to the university. The critics of openness generated a lot of negative press. This soon became the way for my detractors to fight what was going on at the university. In spite of all the discomfort, to begin the process of opening up FAMU to the citizens of this state was a great achievement. FAMU is a state institution that belongs to the citizens of Florida.
There were other major achievements: the organization and implementation of a full-time resident life program; development and acceptance of a corrective action plan in response to the 2002-03 Operational Audit findings; resolving the federal financial aid lockout, in which Pell Grants were affected; resolving the NCAA issues without major damage to the athletic programs; resolving the College of Education accreditation issues; and resolving the SACS (Southern Association of Colleges and Schools based in Atlanta) accreditation issues.
I hope the employees of the university will also agree that receiving a 9.6 percent increase in salary, 6.3 percent from the Legislature and 3 percent from university funds, during my tenure was also an achievement.
Have Historically Black Colleges and Universities outlived their usefulness in a pluralistic society? Are they duplicating what is already available to American students?
Absolutely not. Yes, they are duplicating some services and programs that are available to American students. However, we are not duplicating the kind of students being served. The students you find at HBCUs, for the most part, are not students that would be accepted at traditional majority colleges. Success is not recruitment. It is graduation. We do a better job with graduation.
On a scale of one to four, with four being high, how would you rate the quality of FAMU’s faculty, administrators, students and staff?
I cannot rate the faculty, administrators and staff at FAMU. In my opinion, FAMU lacks a common purpose, clarity of outcomes and a willingness to make the necessary changes. FAMU is blessed with some dedicated, caring and committed faculty, administrators, staff and students. However, to rate them I need a focus for the evaluation. Because in order to evaluate or rate something, you have to have a criteria on which to do it, and in my opinion, that’s focus. FAMU has not synthesized its mission. And if you’re going to measure the effectiveness of a faculty member, you’ve got to know how that faculty member is producing within the mission that you’ve established. There are dedicated people there. But if the talent is for something that you don’t need in areas that we’re not specializing in, we have a problem.
How about the students, one to four?
I’ll give FAMU students a two. But that’s awful because we accept them and we could help more be successful. We don’t communicate our expectations. We don’t challenge them enough. We take anything they give us without consequences. There’s no reason for them to be successful. Of course, we have some students who make it anywhere.
What are the most serious problems facing HBCUs?
The one thing most HBCUs have in common is operating behind a veil of secrecy that covers processes and understandings that are slowly eating away the solid foundation of the institution. What goes on on campus stays on campus, and nobody questions it. At one time, this may have been necessary, but the world is changing. HBCUs, including FAMU, must change. We have not faced the fact that FAMU is a state institution and belongs to the citizens of this state, not to a few vocal Rattlers.
Is cronyism, along with nepotism, a big problem at FAMU?
Yes. And this is obvious when you look at people in certain positions. It is not uncommon to have four or five members of a family, neighbors or long time friends who work in the same department.
Do HBCUs, including FAMU, place too much emphasis on sports and marching bands?
Probably. At FAMU, the performance of the band, the Marching 100, along with the athletic programs, serves as a showpiece. The band is one of the best things at the university. It’s known all over the world. However, so much can be attributed to blind glorification. One of my biggest problems was trying to get people to understand that the band is there for currently enrolled FAMU students with at least a 2.0 grade point average, not for alumni or for students who have dropped out or students enrolled in other institutions.
When you look at the GPAs of those in the band, they may be able to play an instrument, but their academic success wasn’t good. Some of their GPAs are below 2.0. Now, for an institution that offers degrees in education, that kind of thing shouldn’t happen. People assume that everyone in the band is a FAMU student in good standing.
Are you saying that not everybody in the Marching 100 is a FAMU student?
Yes. For the ’05-06 football season, when I told the band that I would require them to follow the printed requirement and not allow anybody to be in the band except FAMU students, it all but caused a walkout. When we played Florida International University in Miami, there were rumors of a strike. I received word that they wouldn’t come to Miami if I didn’t let the Tallahassee Community College students, the FSU students and the ex-FAMU students, who were not registered, back in the band.
If I allowed only registered students with GPAs of 2.0 and above to be in the band, they would strike. So, I took the position that there would be a verification of band members participating in Miami, and every student who was on scholarship should be there. If they weren’t, parents and guardians would get a letter requesting payment for the term on Monday morning because scholarships would be eliminated. They showed up in Miami and did a great job.
How valuable is a degree from an HBCU?
With a few exceptions, I think our value is rapidly declining and probably will continue to decline if we do not accept reality and be willing to make the necessary changes.
You were reported in the Tallahassee Democrat as saying the dysfunction that overwhelmed you during your short tenure started 20 years ago under former president Frederick Humphries. Do you stand by that claim today?
Yes. So much of what is accepted as “the FAMU way,” the dysfunction, began a long time ago and that time frame includes some of Dr. Humphries’ tenure. I have said often that the written policies and the actual procedures are different from actual practices at FAMU. It takes a while to migrate from a procedure to a practice that is generally accepted as standard procedure.
But everything that happened during Dr. Humphries’ tenure wasn’t a bad deal. He did some wonderful things. In fact, I think Dr. Humphries is probably one of the most effective recruiters I have ever known. And the fact that he was able to recruit all those black national merit scholars to FAMU is actually phenomenal. During some semesters, he recruited more black merit scholars than Harvard.
The sad part is that most of the students did not graduate from FAMU. In fact, at one point, only 12 out of a cohort of 84 National Merit Scholars graduated.
How do you respond to critics who say your abrasive style – my way or the highway – alienated many at FAMU, thus exacerbating many of the problems you were hired to solve?
Quite frequently, when comments are made about professionals at almost every level, men with certain characteristics are considered strong and focused. Women with some of the same characteristics are called abrasive. Men with a vision and determination are great administrators, and women are referred to as being hard to work with, hard to report to and are intolerable.
If I truly alienated anyone, I’m sorry. It was never, ever on purpose. If the alienation was self-imposed as a result of my adhering to professional values and standards, I am still sorry. Maybe I should have done a better job of explaining my positions. Working with an abrasive administrator is no excuse for anyone to ditch their own personal, professional values and standards.
A state operational audit released this year cited 35 management problems, doubling the number of findings under your predecessor, Fred Gainous. Even under Humphries, auditors routinely reported only five or six operational problems. How do you explain the drastic increase?
When the constitutional amendment was passed and each university received a board of trustees, the approach for auditing each of the universities changed. It is my understanding that at the same time some accounting procedures and requirements also changed. Therefore, the audits are different since the changes.
Some of the recent audit findings were repeats with work being done to correct them, and some were new. The state auditors spent six to eight months on campus conducting this audit, which is an unusually long time for such an audit. I talked with one of the auditors, and he admitted that they received a number of “tips” about things they should review, which kept their review active. They just kept digging. They got a lot of tips, and we got additional scrutiny. The number of findings increased. No matter how or why they were found, I still think those findings must be corrected.
FAMU has been placed on six months’ probation to clean up its financial mess. If it fails to meet the deadline, SACS could take away the school’s accreditation, which means, among other things, students will become ineligible for financial aid, students’ degrees will be devalued, many donors will reconsider their gifts to the school, and the school’s reputation will suffer. What role did you play in creating this crisis?
I accept some responsibility for it because either directly or indirectly, I had something to do with it because I was the interim president for 28 months. No one has shared with me the specific information that relates to the standards that are being reviewed.
I have been told that SACS uses a clipping service as one way to keep abreast of what’s going on with the institutions it serves. As you know, FAMU has received quite a bit of unfavorable press over the last few years. I’ve also been told that some of the university naysayers added SACS to their regular distribution list and made frequent telephone calls. I suppose that when you add all of these things with the information that SACS collects through the regular procedures, it decided to look further.
What must the new president, James Ammons, do for the university to survive as a viable institution?
He’s going to have to be realistic about what needs to be done. I think FAMU must become a different institution if it is to survive. Change is not easy. It can be painful. If all of us will accept reality and embrace total accountability, using standard professional measures, I think we could make it to the other side of this crisis. It is going to take more than those persons on FAMU’s campus. I hope a diverse group of people from across this state will make a commitment to FAMU’s survival and rally around one plan. Friendships, personal relationships and all of that stuff are not the way.
If you were a parent with a child ready to attend college, would you recommend FAMU or any other HBCU?
I’d recommend some selective HBCUs.
Can you name one you would select?
I would gently encourage my child to place a carefully selected HBCU at the top of the list of schools being considered. It is impossible to talk about the total value of an African-American child being in that kind of productive environment at least once in a lifetime. If I had a child that wanted to go to medical school, I’d send him to Xavier in New Orleans. Xavier has a wonderful record of sending people to medical school. Their students become medical school graduates. They get in and out.
Would you select FAMU?
Not at this time.
Why, then, is FAMU important to the people of Florida?
FAMU can take a shy African-American student from a town like Jasper, yours truly, and help that child to become competent and skillful. It is needed for the many other young people across this state with a similar profile. If you go to another institution where you’re not in the majority and you’ve had limited exposure to other cultures, you probably will not enter the classroom with a self-assured feeling needed for success. At an HBCU, such as FAMU, you walk into a classroom where the instructor is as competent as any, where you and your classmates have similar backgrounds. Sometimes, this is unexplainable. But it is important for some students to succeed.
Is Dr. Ammons the right person as FAMU’s president at this time?
My interactions with Dr. Ammons are limited. I do not know him personally and know nothing about his plans or vision for the university. I do not have enough information to answer that question.
FAST FACTS
Bryant’s resume
Bryant was president of Miami-Dade Community College North Campus from 1997-2003, worked at FAMU from 1964-74 and taught middle school. Born in Jasper, Fla., she earned a bachelor’s degree and master’s degree from FAMU and a doctorate in adult education from Nova Southeastern University.