This year, sports archrivals Bethune-Cookman University and Florida A&M University have one thing in common: leadership turmoil at the top of both institutions.
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TALLAHASSEE – In a dramatic three-hour Oct. 22 meeting, members of Florida A&M’s Board of Trustees made failed attempts to fire President Elmira Mangum and sparked students to march to Gov. Rick Scott’s office in support of the embattled president.
Mangum narrowly survived two motions by votes of 7-5 and 6-6 respectively that could have led to her ouster – the latest episode in a series of public conflicts between the president and several trustees.
Discussion during the meeting centered on payments for renovations to the president’s residence and whether two purchase orders for $300,209 and $71,529 had received board approval. There were also questions about four employee bonuses, which trustee Chairman Rufus Montgomery described as “irregularities and improprieties” that had not been approved by the board.
“It’s a violation of state law,” said Montgomery.
Mangum denied the allegations.
Within hours of Thursday’s votes, FAMU students marched to the Capitol, demanding justice for Mangum. About 150 congregated outside the governor’s office, where their representatives met with members of Scott’s staff.
“It was an act of malfeasance on the part of the FAMU Board of Trustees,” said student body Vice President Justin Bruno, a junior from Orlando. “There needs to be some grounds for their insinuations. …They need to have grounds. They need to have evidence.”
A day after trying unsuccessfully to fire Mangum, Montgomery resigned.
An appointee of Gov. Rick Scott, Montgomery announced his decision in an email to fellow trustees that described his relationship with Mangum as “broken and irreparable.”
“An expected spirit of cooperation with the board’s responsible efforts to hold the president accountable has not materialized and is not likely to occur with the current board,” he wrote, adding that the challenges facing FAMU “require an effective working relationship between the board chair and the university president.”
Montgomery, a Republican lobbyist based in Atlanta, will remain a member of the Board of Trustees, while Vice Chairman Kelvin Lawson will become acting chair until a new election is held.
“With this change, we are recommitting ourselves to a conciliatory approach as we continue to provide leadership in the best interest of Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University,” Lawson said in a statement.
Montgomery and some other trustees have repeatedly clashed with Mangum in recent months.
Trustee Tonnette Graham, the president of FAMU’s Student Government Association, objected to the votes because she said the board should take public comment first. But Montgomery proceeded anyway.
On the march
Even as the trustees were voting, FAMU students were siding with Mangum. In the hours that followed, they gathered on the steps of Lee Hall, FAMU’s main administration building, calling for Montgomery to resign. Then they marched to Scott’s office, where they met with members of the governor’s staff.
“When you make a decision at 7:30 in the morning over the phone to remove our president without hearing my concerns and my voice, I have a very big issue with that,” FAMU Student Senator Brandon Johnson, who helped lead the march, said. “She’s doing an excellent job.”
Former university Trustee Marjorie Turnbull, a Mangum ally who left the board last spring, credited students with forcing an end to the months-long impasse between Mangum and Montgomery. She also said Montgomery had made a wise decision in stepping down.
“I do not believe there was any positive outcome for him continuing as chair,” Turnbull said. “He has been opposed to her since the first day she took office. And if the university is going to move forward, the board must have a chair that is willing to work in a collegial manner with the president.”
State Senate Minority Leader Arthenia Joyner, a Tampa Democrat who has led efforts to support Mangum during the conflict, also hailed Montgomery’s resignation “because he set a tenor of mistrust.”
Joyner, whose law and undergraduate degrees are from FAMU, urged Montgomery to “examine his past behavior…and really accept the fact that there’s a woman at the helm without micromanaging and meddling by the board.”
Turnbull said the trustees could move past the conflict and accept Mangum as the university’s first woman president.
“There are certain board members for whom the fact that she’s a woman has been a barrier,” Turnbull said. “I do not believe that’s the case with the majority of the board.”
Attorney Chuck Hobbs – a FAMU grad, Mangum ally and popular blogger – thinks the board and president should go on a retreat and use mediation to resolve their differences.
But if they can’t, he said, FAMU supporters should “put outside pressure on what I call the gang of six that sought her ouster… to do the honorable thing and resign completely from the board of trustees.”
In Daytona Beach, Bethune-Cookman University presented its highest honor, the Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune Leadership Award, to Florida Gov. Rick Scott during Homecoming Week despite a public outcry from alumni, and B-CU President Dr. Edison O. Jackson got a two-year extension on his employment contract.
“It is with great pleasure that I announce the extension of President Edison O. Jackson’s contract with Bethune-Cookman University. During the October 2015 meeting, the Board of Trustees voted to renew the President’s contract for two additional years, ending in June 2018,” B-CU Board Chairman Joe Petrock wrote in an emailed letter dated Oct. 23.
Jackson has made “undeniable strides since taking office in 2013” according to Petrock, who goes on to brag about the university’s latest fundraising event.
“President Jackson and I co-founded the Mary McLeod Bethune Legacy Awards Gala, which recognizes leaders who have made a great impact on our institution and community.
“The most recent 3rd annual event hosted 811 guests, raised $2.2M and honored five outstanding leaders including Governor Rick Scott, Ms. Lucille O’Neal, Mr. Tony Jenkins, Rev. Dr. Gerald Lord and Mr. Jeff Feasel. It was one of the largest events hosted in the history of Volusia County. Over the past three years, the gala has raised $7.5M and hosted nearly 2,000 guests,” he writes.
Still, storm clouds are on the horizon.
In a six-page letter dated Sept. 15 that was publicly revealed by the Florida Courier three weeks ago, Pompano Beach-based attorney Johnny L. McCray, Jr., a longtime member of the B-CU Board of Trustees, issued an ultimatum demanding that his fellow board members bring in forensic auditors to probe the school’s finances for fraud and fiscal mismanagement.
If they refused, McCray wrote that he would file lawsuits against individual board members and request a state and federal criminal investigation.
No direct response
Neither Jackson nor his administration have responded directly to McCray’s demand, though Jackson emailed a letter last week to B-CU stakeholders that seem to take shots at McCray – and at the Florida Courier.
“I cannot tell you why those who oppose our ascent to greatness want to use the media to damage our brand. I cannot tell you why people who say they love B-CU engage practices that ultimately challenge our ability to promote student success. I cannot tell you why those who claim to promote the University would pose threats that impugn the credibility of the University’s leadership,” Jackson wrote in his email.
B-CU has never submitted a direct response to the Florida Courier regarding McCray’s letter, despite multiple requests. Jackson and Petrock were both “unavailable” when they were provided with alternate dates by the Florida Courier editorial staff for one-hour recorded telephone interviews to answer questions about McCray’s letter.
Petrock’s letter did not indicate whether McCray’s demand was discussed during the same board meeting in which Jackson’s contract was extended. Unlike FAMU, B-CU board meetings are generally closed to the public because B-CU is not a publicly-funded institution.
Last week, McCray picked up some influential support.
Three of B-CU’s largest and most powerful national alumni chapters – Daytona Beach, known as the school’s “mother chapter;” Miami-Dade; and Palm Beach – all sided with his call for a forensic audit.
In a letter dated Oct. 19 signed by Chapter President Shirlyon J. McWhorter, B-CU’s Miami-Dade Alumni Chapter stood squarely behind McCray and tied Jackson with B-CU’s former chief financial officer – who left two previous schools and B-CU under questionable fiscal circumstances.
“…(O)ur chapter membership is deeply concerned about the lack of transparency and accountability since the hiring and eventual resignation of B-CU’s former Chief Financial Officer, Emmanuel Gonsalves, a longtime business intimate of current B-CU president Edison Jackson,” McWhorter states.
“Numerous sources – including articles in the press and a petition drafted and circulated earlier this year by alumni nationwide – have called attention to not only Gonsalves’ actions at B-CU but also at Medgar Evers College in New York City and the College of Science, Technology and Applied Arts of Trinidad and Tobago (COSTAATT).
“Gonsalves’ time at Medgar Evers College, COSTAAT, and B-CU have two important things in common: He was forced to resign amidst financial scandal at each institution and he and Dr. Jackson worked together at each at oft times overlapping intervals at all of the above universities.”
The letter cites McCray’s allegation that $5.6 million was paid to a vendor as a consequence of a contract signed without Jackson’s knowledge.
“This is troubling because there is no mention that Dr. Jackson ordered any audit or other investigative inquiry to discover the cause and culprit of those signatures…we stand firmly in support of Johnny McCray…
“Our support for Attorney McCray also extends, if circumstances require it, to his preparedness to “prosecute a derivative lawsuit, on behalf of the University” as well as the summoning of “state and federal law enforcement officials to investigate whether embezzlement or other criminal acts may have been committed against the University.”
B-CU’s Board of Trustees also received a similar letter dated Oct. 17 from the Palm Beach County Alumni Chapter, represented by President Sylvia L. Howard-Gibson.
“With the overwhelming approval of the chapter members at our meeting on Saturday, October 17th, I am expressing the will of the members to implement the recommendation by Trustee Johnny L. McCray, Jr. for a forensic audit,” Howard-Gibson writes.
“A forensic audit of the University’s books and records from 2011-2014, and as my chapter has voted to include 2015, will continue to provide more clarity and transparency…. Conducting a forensic audit does not seem outlandish in light of the recent discoveries of financial inconsistencies.”
Log on to www.flcourier.com to read the various letters mentioned in this story.
Margie Menzel of the News Service of Florida contributed to this report.