By Reginald Stuart
When Larry Robinson was attending high school on the South side of Memphis, he never dreamed of one day being responsible for leading one of the nation’s most prominent public colleges out of a period of public shame and back to respectability.
Today, that’s been Robinson’s more than full time assignment as interim president of Florida A & M (FAMU) University, a post he took on a year ago July 16, as the institution was reeling from one day of bad news to the next.
“It’s an honor and pleasure to serve,” said Robinson, using language that would be considered boilerplate had it come from most any other speaker. There’ nothing phony about the humility, starting with the fact he rarely uses his academic PhD in sir name to immediately establish he credentials, say those who have come to know Robinson.
Robinson, a 58-year-old Memphian, is not a ladder climber or attention seeker, say those who monitor the university on a regular basis. He really is just trying and doing a good job in the task at hand, they say.
“He’s just the kind of guy we need,” said FAMU Alumni Association President Tommy Mitchell, a retired FAMU employee and alumnus. . “He is laid back and intelligent,” Mitchell said, echoing others interviewed. “He doesn’t get upset and emotional. Nobody questions his intellect. During all this chaos, we’re still on track.”
Robinson got a major endorsement just last month when Florida’s Board of Governors for state funded higher education approved FAMU’s revised strategic plan, one it had rejected this time a year ago. System Chancellor, Frank Brogan, credited Robinson with helping move the ball.
In a talk last month with reporters after the board meeting concluded, Brogan was reported by the Tallahassee Democrat as citing Robinson’s “openness” and desire to work with the board. Brogan noted the collegial atmosphere Robinson has established and maintained since taking over had not always been the case at FAMU.
Robinson has received such praise in the year he’s been in charge, that the chants that he made permanent president grow steadily. It’s not something he’s campaigning for, he said, noting there’s a lot yet to be done in the job he has now.
Most of the cleanup work dates to the troubling news stemming from the death in October, 2011, of a school band drum major who died from injuries inflicted by fellow band members as part of an illegal hazing activity gone terribly wrong.
That incident opened the flood gates on a range of complaints of hazing and lax student safety at FAMU, complaints that resulted in more than state charges being brought against more than 30 students for violating state laws prohibiting hazing.
Meanwhile, there were investigations into inappropriate use of band program funds, concerns about the university athletic program’s growing deficit and questions about proper assignment of faculty to various teaching responsibilities.
In addition to various investigations by the State of Florida, FAMU’s troubles eventually drew the attention of the powerful Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS), the higher education accreditation agency governing most colleges and universities in the South.
With troubles piling on, FAMU’s board of trustees voted in June, 2012, to terminate the service of then President Dr. James Ammons, a FAMU alumnus who had been president of North Carolina Central University.
Without haste, they turned to Robinson, a low profile nuclear scientist with keen intellect and a wry sense of humor who had twice served as Provost (the No.2 job at a university) at FAMU since coming to the university in 1997. They considered him the person with the stamina and skills needed to right their ship.
“Nobody said it would be easy,” Robinson said in a brief interview just after taking on the job of running FAMU, a multi million dollar enterprise with more than a thousand employees and more than 10,000 students.
For sure, the interim president job has taken most of Robinson’s time and attention, eliminating trips home to visit family in Memphis and making a fading memory the drives he used to take for years between Memphis and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory near Knoxville where he worked for more than a decade after graduating with his PhD in nuclear chemistry from the University of Washington in St. Louis.
His time and his attention are focused on the task at hand.
With a few notable stumbles along the way, Robinson has been leading a major overhaul of leadership, policies and practices on a variety of fronts few institutions in the nation have executed so aggressively, yet methodically, in such a short span of time.
FAMU has strengthened its “zero tolerance” policies regarding student hazing with new rules imposed covering all organizations on campus and exercise of those rules sparing no violators.
Additional personnel, including a special assistant to the president for anti-hazing, have been hired to make sure the policies are respected, enforced and monitored. FAMU has strengthened its office of judicial affairs, the university office that addresses alleged violations of student conduct rules. Admissions requirements have been heightened and new programs initiated aimed at improving retention, progression and graduation of students
To address the SACS concerns, intense work is being done by a special FAMU task force whose assignment is to get the institution ready for a clean bill of health by fall
FAMU has until December, 2013, to comply with all SACS standards or risk further punishment. A SACS Special Committee is to visit the institution this fall.
At the same winter board meeting, the SACS Commission on Colleges will also separately rule on the status of Nashville’s Fisk University. It too is on probation.
The FAMU overhaul has been marked by appointment of half a dozen new deans. The university’s athletic director, his department sinking deeply in the red, retired last month. A new campus chief of police was appointed last month, after filling a position vacant for a year.
The SACS issues which Robinson jokingly calls “the elephant” in the room is “our Number One priority,” Robinson said. “If we were not accredited that would cost about $150 million a year in federal aid plus about $50 million in sponsored research.”
The most notable move toward normalcy was Robinson’s decision earlier this summer to remove the FAMU band from suspension. “The Marching 100,” as the world famous band was once known was silenced soon after the drum major’s death. Being off probation does not automatically mean the band will take the field as soon as the university’s football season starts this fall.
Return to the field, where the band is know for its football game half time performances, hinges on a number of considerations, Robinson said in an interview earlier this month, reaffirming his position of last year that he won’t be rushed into deciding.
Robinson was not ready to offer details of the new band plan beyond saying his emphasis will be on “quality not quantity.” Others familiar with prevailing thinking among FAMU administrators is that “The Marching 100,” which boasted more than 400 members at the time of the drum major incident, will be smaller. All band participants will also have to comply with a roster of new rules, including being fully registered in the university, maintaining their academic standing and honoring band practice and conduct requirements.