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Florida A&M Faces Questions Over Improvement Plan

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TALLAHASSEE (NSF) - Worried that Florida A&M University was taking too much of an "incremental" approach, members of the state university system's Board of Governors directed the school in June to come back with a more-aggressive plan for improving performance.

But when Florida A&M leaders went before the Board of Governors again Thursday, they ran into more questions --- including about whether the university is admitting unprepared students who then wind up amassing large amounts of debt.

Maybe the most-pointed criticism, however, focused on the revised improvement plan itself. Board of Governors members said they were caught off guard that the plan, approved by Florida A&M's trustees last month, appeared to be contingent on getting an additional $15 million.

Board members, meeting in Gainesville, said other universities couldn't make their improvement plans contingent on getting more money, with board Chairman Mori Hosseini saying the idea is contrary to the university system's push to more closely link performance and funding.

Board member Patricia Frost said she spoke with Florida A&M leaders Friday about the plan, known as a work plan, but never heard that it was dependent on more money.

"It was never brought to me personally that this proposal was based on getting all this money,'' Frost said. "It was just a desire."

Pressed by the board, Florida A&M President Elmira Mangum and trustees Chairman Rufus Montgomery said carrying out the plan is not contingent on additional money, with Montgomery saying he heard the Board of Governors "loud and clear."

"We did not develop the work plan contingent on receiving any resources,'' Mangum said. "We have an opportunity, or at least we thought we did, to request additional resources like other institutions through the (legislative budget request) process, knowing that we do need additional resources."

The discussion about the work plan came amid a tense time at Florida A&M, as Montgomery and other trustees have been publicly critical of Mangum, who took over as president last year. Meanwhile, Mangum has received backing from some high-profile alumni, including state lawmakers.

The Board of Governors in June considered work plans from universities throughout the system. A committee of the board, however, thought Florida A&M's plan for improving performance was not aggressive enough.

"The sentiment expressed by the committee and by other members of the board was that FAMU needed transformational change rather than incremental improvement,'' minutes of the committee meeting said.

Board members Thursday approved Florida A&M's revised plan after getting the assurances it was not contingent on additional funding.

Nevertheless, board member Alan Levine expressed concerns about the number of students coming into Florida A&M needing remediation because they are not prepared. He said that leads to students with large amounts of college debt and has resulted in high loan-default rates.

"FAMU has such enormous potential, and the students have such enormous potential,'' Levine said. "But we're not giving them the resources they need because we're spending so much time remediating, when we have an entire community college system dedicated to that."

But Mangum said Florida A&M, the only historically black university in the system, was charged in its creation to provide remediation for students. She said it needs to hear from the Board of Governors if that mission is going to change.

"It was designed to provide remediation and provide opportunities for low-wealth and low-income students, who do need additional support services,'' she said.

The News Service Of Florida's Jim Saunders contributed to this report.

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