Florida A&M University’s president has been on the job a little over a year. Since her appointment, FAMU has enjoyed largely positive press. But lately, the headlines have turned—highlighting growing discontent between Mangum and her board chairman. The issues facing FAMU’s newest administration is both a personality, and a policy fight.
It’s the first day of Fall classes at Florida A&M University and President Elmira Mangum is walking the campus. She stops to chat with students Bruson Ovil, Cordell Wilson, and John Kimbrough. They’re sporting sleek suits as they lounging under shaded benches. Mangum says it’s important to know the students.
“Seeing who they are where they are from is important. For them to see I care, because that’s the reason I’m here—for them. And I want them to know that, and feel that.”
Mangum became FAMU’s president last April. During her first weeks on the job, she fought a plan to split the FAMU-Florida State University College of Engineering. Sen. Dwight Bullard, D-Miami, says FAMU’s achievements are being overlooked.
“We’re talking about a school named the best in the Southeast. We’re talking about a school that’s considered one of the most affordable in the South. We’re talking about a school that’s begun to retain and recruit some of the top tiered students in the country in the midst of this conflict, but that’s not being reported.”
Preliminary numbers show this year's freshman class at FAMU is about 2,400--up from last year.
Bullard, a FAMU alumnus, recently joined other Democratic FAMU alumni in calling for the university’s Board of Trustees Chairman and fellow alumnus Rufus Montgomery, to resign. Mangum and Montgomery have been publically clashing. Tampa Democratic Senator Arthenia Joyner has claimed Montgomery is bullying Mangum and charges him with sexism. But former board member and FAMU professor Narayan Persaud say Montgomery is doing his job, asking tough questions that need to be asked.
“I don’t see how the public questioning rises to the level of harassment, unless there’s a different definition of what harassment is all about," Persaud said.
Earlier this year Mangum hired Santoras D. Gamble in FAMU’s office of Communications. What raised eyebrows among FAMU faculty, staff and administrators, is Gamble’s background. He’s paid $75,000 a year. Gamble was convicted of Conspiracy to Defraud the United States, a felony. He was ordered to pay more than $122,000 in restitution to the U.S. Department of Education and Auburn University, where the crime took place. He also shows up the U.S. Department of Education’s annual fraud report to congress in 2012.
Other high level administrators have been hired with salaries exceeding those at other Florida universities, often with financial supplements that aren’t reflected in the official state payroll.
There have also been concerns raised about President Mangum’s travel schedule. She’s taken trips around the county and out of it—to places like China and Brazil. Such trips also come with bills. In July Mangum and her board clashed over a decision to hand over budgetary control of the FAMU-FSU College of Engineering to FSU. FAMU Spokesman Jimmy Miller says the move allows FAMU to focus on getting it student and faculty numbers up:
“There’s been over the last decade, a 45 percent decline in the number of FAMU engineering students. And there are 24 FAMU faculty. all those ratios have declined," he said at the time.
FAMU’s board says it was never notified of that decision, and should have been consulted. Many current and former school officials were interviewed for this story and declined to comment publicly citing a fear of retribution. Some FAMUans argue FAMU should keep its conflicts quiet, behind closed doors. But it’s too late for that now.
“The only side I want to Take is FAMU," said former FAMU Trustee and Bethel Baptist Church Pastor R.B. Holmes. "I think the President, Chairman and the Board of Trustees, have the intelligence and integrity to work through the challenges.”
Holmes says Mangum has made mistakes, and thinks part of the problem is that she’s still new to running a university, and learning how to manage the politics of higher education in Florida. Prior to appointment as FAMU President, Mangum was Cornell University's Vice President of Planning and Budget.
Still Holmes notes, FAMU chairman Rufus Montgomery was unanimously re-elected by the board, and that should send a message on where the board stands:
“I have a great disagreement with political leadership that calls for the chairman to resign," he said. "That was inappropriate. SACS is going to have a problem with that. Everyone is grown, but the chairman is the chairman.”
SACS is the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, and it's FAMU’s accreditation agency. It views political interference in university affairs negatively. Meanwhile, Mangum says she is not in conflict with Montgomery.
“I’m just trying to establish a good working relationship, and my communications have been with the chairman. Only. And I really want to keep my communications with the chairman," she said.
She also defends her travel record, saying FAMU needs the national and international exposure. Furthermore, when it comes to hires, Mangum says they too are furthering her goals for Florida A&M:
“I have hired very qualified people who are experienced at what they do. Their history speaks to it. That’s all we can do. They’re bringing their experience to Florida A&M and are very capable of moving our mission forward. If people fear success, that may be the reason, but we have a successful team and they’re going to keep pushing until we reach what we came here for, and that’s being a best in class university.”
Board Chairman Montgomery declined to be interviewed for this story.
The president has many detractors, but she also has supporters. Among them is fourth year occupational therapy student Mae Weaver. She's one of the few students left on campus that were freshman four years ago, when FAMU was embroiled in a hazing scandal that led to the ouster of former President James Ammons. Weaver says there's a different mood on campus now, more positive. She asks Mangum for a hug when she spots the President at the university library Starbucks.
“Go woman! No knock on the men, but she’s a positive influence out here, a great personality," Weaver says of Mangum. "She has this big beautiful smile, she’s our little beauty on campus.”
And for Weaver, that’s enough.
*Correction:An earlier version of this story stated Mangum was Vice President of Finance at Cornell. She was Vice President of Planning and Budget.