FAMU under review

Tuesday marked the beginning of a three-day visit from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges.

Members of the commission’s “Special Committee” are on Florida A&M’s campus until Thursday morning to further look into whether the university should remain an accredited institution. The results will be available in December.

“This committee is looking at specific standards, which were being followed up on at the request of our board of trustees,” said Michael Johnson, SACSCOC senior vice president and chief of staff.

Johnson said the committee started addressing the issues as soon as they received the written documents from Interim President Larry Robinson in July 2012.

“They do a lot of their work before they get to campus,” Johnson said. “So they’ve read through all of those materials, and we’re here to ask questions [and] see additional materials that maybe weren’t in the original submissions.”

Robinson said it is important to note that this visit is a peer process, adding that FAMU is a dues-paying member to SACSCOC.

“This is part of what we do,” Robinson said. “We’ve committed to a certain set of standards that we’ve agreed to operate by, and all these individuals are doing is determining whether or not we are in compliance with our standards. We welcome them to our campus.”

The outcome of SACSCOC’s visit will help determine whether the 86.1 percent of full-time undergraduates who receive need-based financial aid at FAMU, according to U.S. News & World Report, will continue to do so.

“An institution would have to be accredited by an agency recognized by the Department of Education in order to give Pell Grants, in order to give PLUS Loans, in order to give any type of financial aid programs that’s federally based,” Johnson said.

How it began

The visit is the next step in a process that began as early as November 2011 after
the hazing death of drum major Robert Champion.

Johnson issued a letter in June 2012 to then-university President James Ammons, informing him of the necessity of SACSCOC to follow up with the university for possible non-compliance with four accreditation principle standards: academic policies, student rights, control of finances and institutional environment.

“As you are well aware,” it read, “the tragic loss of life associated with hazing has brought a great deal of attention to the issue of campus safety and security.

“Continuing unsolicited reports received by our offices and in national media point to the possibility of financial fraud. Other reports allege that campus policies may have been violated in terms of student (and nonstudent) eligibility to participate in the band program.”

The university was given a month to respond. Robinson, following Ammons’ resignation, issued a reply addressing the committee’s concerns. In reference to academic policies and student rights, Robinson noted the changes in eligibility requirements for clubs and organizations, as well as the marching band.

New guidelines for joining clubs and organizations included restricting freshmen from joining non-academic groups and organizations, an increased minimum GPA of 2.5 and a minimum 30 hours of community service.

The band was suspended indefinitely soon after Champion’s death. Former band director Julian White was placed on administrative leave in December 2011 and resigned in May 2012. The university informed SACSCOC of the revised anti-hazing policy it would implement and the new positions it would fill: a special assistant to the president for anti-hazing and a music compliance officer.

In addition to new leadership, FAMU would deem students from Florida State University and Tallahassee Community College ineligible to participate in the band and place a four-year limit of eligibility for the full-time FAMU students who were eligible.

FAMU cooperated with the board of governors and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s financial investigations. To further demonstrate a control of finances, Robinson said the university contracted Sniffen & Spellman to conduct a review of internal auditor processes.

The investigation concluded that the Division of Audit and Compliance “knowingly presented” 15 audit or review reports to the BOT as “executive summaries.” The reports led recipients to falsely believe all work had been conducted and completed. Twelve of the reports submitted to the BOT audit committee had either “substantive work performed after the date of submission or did not exhibit sufficient work to support the reported conclusions.”

After an evaluation by the audit and compliance office determined the benefit of re-performing the work, Ernst & Young was hired to re-perform work for eight of the audits.

Charles O’Duor, former vice president for audit and compliance, resigned in November 2011. According to the document, another individual in that division was terminated. In June 2012 the university replaced O’Duor with Richard Givens, noting that he had more than 22 years of experience as an auditor in higher education.

Belle Wheelan, SACSCOC president, told Robinson in August 2012 that the information he submitted was “of factual substance” and accreditation-related. Therefore, the committee’s board of trustees undertook a formal review months later at its meeting in December.

Placed on probation

In Wheelan’s next letter, which was sent in January, she stated that FAMU was placed on a twelve-month probation for failure to comply with the principle of integrity and three comprehensive standards: qualified administrative/academic officers, control of finances and institutional environment.

“The institution has failed to operate with integrity in relation to providing accurate information on internal audits,” she wrote.

In her letter, Wheelan noted that several key leadership positions had interim persons serving in those roles and that the two new positions were unfilled. She also said the institution did not present evidence that it has exercised “appropriate control” over its financial resources or that it has implemented reasonable steps to provide a healthy, safe and secure campus environment.

Since, the university has filled an abundance of leadership positions, including: a special assistant to the president for anti-hazing, a music compliance officer, a director of marching and pep bands, a vice president in the office of audit and compliance, five new deans, a chief of police and a director of judicial affairs, among others.

According to the letter, SACSCOC board of trustees has given the university until June 2014 to demonstrate it is in compliance with the standards. The letter also said if the university continues on probation and does not comply, representatives from the institution will be required for a meeting on the record to answer questions “as to why the institution should not be removed from membership or to provide evidence of good cause to extend its accreditation on Probation for an additional six months.”

If the university is not in compliance at the end of two years on probation, the letter read, removal from membership is mandatory.