TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - The trustees leading the search for a new president at Florida A&M University remain confident that they will have hired the university's 11th president by Feb. 1.
It will be a critical decision for FAMU's trustees and their university, whose image has been battered and bruised during the past two years after the hazing death of a Marching 100 drum major hours after the 2011 Florida Classic.
For the hire to take place in less than 10 weeks, FAMU's presidential search committee - which met Oct. 17 for the first time in more than seven months and has yet to schedule its next meeting - is going to have to shift into overdrive.
Don't expect that to happen until after Dec. 10. That's when FAMU learns whether its accrediting agency, Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, has lifted a year-long probation sanction imposed in December 2012.
Solomon Badger, chairman of FAMU's board, suspended the search in March, three days before candidates were scheduled to be interviewed. Badger said he didn't want the search to be a distraction while administrators and faculty focused on the university's accreditation status, which Badger called "vital to FAMU's future."
Badger reopened the search Oct. 3, one week after a team from the accrediting agency made its one official on-campus visit prior to issuing a ruling in December.
At least 28 individuals had submitted their application to Greenwood/Asher, the executive search firm FAMU hired to facilitate its quest for a new president, when the search was suspended in March. That list has now grown to at least 37, with many of the original applicants still ready to be considered for the position.
There are no sitting university presidents on the list of applicants, nor are two names that come up in conversation whenever FAMU's search for a permanent president takes center stage: interim President Larry Robinson and former longtime Florida legislator Al Lawson.
Badger said he expects more names to emerge once the deadline for applying is established, as some candidates are hesitant to be identified to their current employer.
Meanwhile, the search committee and board of trustees will have to grapple with some vexing questions:
• Who is the ideal candidate to lead Florida's only historically black university?
• Will FAMU select someone who did not graduate from the university, something it has not done since hiring George Gore in 1950?
• Will the trustees allow Robinson, who has been the interim president for more than 16 months, apply for the job?
What's at stake
Florida A&M is at a crossroads on at least two critical fronts. If it should lose its accreditation at next month's SACS convention - there is no reason to believe that will happen - it would make the search for a president almost a non-issue. Without accreditation, the university and its students would not be eligible for federal grants and contracts, and more than three-quarters of FAMU's students receive some form of federal aid.
"We have to get beyond the SACS situation," Badger said. "Everything is somewhat related to or hinges upon how we do with SACS. If we get booted, what happens to FAMU? I don't want to even think about that. It's critical for us."
FAMU also is at a crucial juncture as an institution. Its stability is at stake.
In a little more than a decade it has had two permanent presidents and three interim presidents. Since the hazing death in November 2011, student enrollment has plummeted from an all-time high of more than 13,000 to fewer than 11,000.
Marybeth Gasman, a higher education professor at University of Pennsylvania who is widely recognized as one of the country's foremost authorities on HBCUs, said FAMU has lost its way since Frederick Humphries' departure in 2001.
"FAMU has not been living up to its past reputation in the past 10 years. There have been many scandals and that has tainted its image," Gasman said. "It needs to come clean about these failures and focus on serving students. FAMU has great potential but it needs a major shift to ride out the scandals and be great again."
If that major shift that Gasman refers to happens, it will be with a new president in charge of the university.
Members of the search committee have said they want a strong leader with a vision who also excels at fundraising. The trustees said there are no limits to who they will consider; they said they are willing to look at business executives and others outside the world of academia.
There are many FAMU alumni who say the university needs to find the next Humphries, the scientist who led FAMU from 1985 to 2001 - a period considered a golden era at the university.
Humphries, 77, chuckled at the suggestion when contacted.
He said there are three qualities the search committee should focus on next month when the search cranks into high gear: strong leadership and management skills and the ability to work well with the various constituencies at the university.
"I think the university needs in the next president a person with some vision to understand where FAMU must direct its energies," Humphries said.
Robinson, a nuclear chemist who has seamlessly moved into various administrative roles during the past 16 years at FAMU, accepted the interim president position in the wake of James H. Ammons' abrupt resignation in July 2012. Robinson said when taking the job that, to facilitate the transition, he would not be a candidate for the permanent position. However, that stipulation is not in his contract.
Almost everyone involved with FAMU, from students to faculty to trustees to members of the Board of Governors, has voiced praise for Robinson's performance during the 16 months. He has brought stability to a university in turmoil and has been the architect of FAMU's new anti-hazing policies, which have made FAMU a model for other institutions across the country.
Robinson doesn't like to talk about the permanent position. He deflects questions to Badger and the other trustees, who are the ones charged with hiring FAMU's president.
But there is a concentrated effort by FAMU alumni to have Robinson be a candidate. While FAMU's influential National Alumni Association has not endorsed Robinson as the next president, its board of directors presented the trustees with an official declaration urging them to allow Robinson to apply for the job.
FAMU's board, next scheduled to meet in January at the university's law school in Orlando, has never reacted to the alumni association's document since it was presented in March.
"I would hope before the process accelerates the board would respond," said Tommy Mitchell, president of the National Alumni Association. "The support for Dr. Robinson is almost overwhelming. Faculty as well as alumni are constantly requesting that Dr. Robinson be a candidate - some are requesting he be president."
Doug Blackburn, Tallahassee Democrat