MAXWELL:  FAMU floundering in a sea of favoritism

1/24/2008 – Printed in the NATIONAL section of The St Petersburg Times Newspaper

You would think that because the spotlight is always on them, folks at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee would wise up and stop doing business the old way, especially the way they hire personnel.
The recent hiring of Ronald Holmes as the director of FAMU’s Development Research School suggests, however, that nepotism and cronyism are hard-wired into the culture of Florida’s only public historically black university.
According to the St. Petersburg Times, at the recommendation of president James Ammons, the university board of trustees voted to hire Holmes even after the research school’s advisory council that interviewed the three finalists for the $110,000-a-year position rated Holmes the least qualified. When, for example, an interviewer asked Holmes the title of his dissertation, which he wrote for his doctoral at FAMU, he could not recall it. Holmes is the brother of the Rev. R.B. Holmes, vice chairman of the university’s board of trustees and a key player in Tallahassee politics.
The nepotism in the case has angered members of the interview panel and several teachers and administrators at the K-12 research school, which is looking for new direction after receiving an F from the state last year. Only 36 percent of 370 students passed the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test in reading, a major component. The once-proud school, one of four like it statewide, has low morale among personnel, high teacher turnover, declining enrollment and unacceptable student performance.
When he became president last year, Ammons promised to turn the research school around. But his first important act – hiring the brother, the least qualified of three candidates, of a trustee – was a mistake that will cast doubt on Ammons’ veracity and hurt Ronald Holmes’ effectiveness.
In July, I interviewed Castell Bryant, Ammons’ interim predecessor, and asked her if cronyism and nepotism were big problems at FAMU. Her reply: “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 longtime friends who work in the same department.”
Hamstrung by loyalists who challenged her no-nonsense style, Bryant could not reverse the university’s culture of favoritism during her short tenure.
Later, I interviewed Ammons, a FAMU alumnus referred to as a “true Rattler” and a former provost. I asked if cronyism and nepotism are and have been problems: “I have no knowledge of what has happened in that respect since I left the u niversity in 2001. I can only speak to the period that I worked on campus and to what I’m trying to put in place during my current administration.”
I telephoned Ammons on Tuesday seeking a response to his hiring of Ronald Holmes. I wanted to know what made him commit such a blunder when FAMU is seen as a den of favoritism and incompetence. I have not received a return call.
But Michael Wallace, chairman of the research school’s advisory council, told the Times that although other places have favoritism, it is blatant at FAMU.
While others may disagree with Wallace, FAMU, as it struggles to get off accreditation probation, can ill afford the appearance of yet another case of doing favors, especially for a relative whom a hiring panel rejected.
For decades, as evidence suggests, FAMU has rewarded friends and the friends of friends with plum positions of power. Unlike like most other state universities around the country that advertise openings in publications nationwide, FAMU advertises primarily on its Web site, apparently as a way to keep jobs in the “Rattler family.”
Anyone who criticizes the university is demonized as an enemy. Whites are accused of being racists, blacks Uncle Toms and sell-outs. Lest we all forget, FAMU is a state institution financed with tax dollars. It should be held strictly accountable for how it conducts the taxpayers’ business.
No, we do not want to micromanage the school’s affairs, but we should be reassured in knowing that we are getting what we pay for. We do not need any more instances of incompetent relatives and friends being put on the university’s payroll.