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TALLAHASSEE (NSF) – In a dramatic three-hour meeting Thursday, members of the Florida A&M University 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 votes 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 four employee bonuses, which trustees Chairman Rufus Montgomery described as “irregularities and improprieties” that had not been approved by the board.
“It’s a violation of state law,” he said.
Despite a memo that Mangum sent Wednesday refuting the allegations, the trustees held an emergency meeting by conference call early Thursday morning, and Vice Chairman Kelvin Lawson quickly moved for her termination.
After a long debate about whether the dismissal would be for cause or not, Lawson proposed removing Mangum for “incurable cause,” and the 12-member board voted 7-5 against the move. Lawson, Montgomery, Bettye Grable, Spurgeon McWilliams and Robert Woody voted in favor.
A second vote, to remove Mangum without cause, failed on a 6-6 tie. Student trustee Tonnette Graham, president of FAMU’s Student Government Association, at first abstained and then changed her vote at the last minute to prevent the motion from passing.
“Don’t get me wrong: I have grave concerns about Dr. Mangum and her administration,” Graham said. “But in these last two hours, I’ve gotten over 200 messages from my constituents.”
Within hours, 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.”
The evidence was elusive. The allegations concerned language in Mangum’s contract requiring her to obtain board approval for any improvements to the residence — which belongs to the university — of more than $10,000. Most of the work had been done before Mangum began her job at FAMU, and she noted in her memo that the university had made improvements to the property “unprompted and unbidden by me.”
Other allegations concerned a bonus paid from the wrong account, which was corrected when the error was discovered. But when Montgomery asked Richard Givens, the university’s vice president for auditing and compliance, for his opinion, Givens said, “Typically, it would result in a finding” against the university.
Trustees who want Mangum gone say she hasn’t worked well with them, and they criticized her job performance.
“I think the president is responsible” for the financial questions at issue, Woody said. “If she didn’t know, she should have known.”
Others said that since her hiring in January 2014, trustees haven’t given Mangum the time or support she needs to succeed.
“I’m not prepared at this time to place the blame solely at the feet of the president, because I don’t think we as a board have done everything we can to repair this relationship,” Trustee Belinda Shannon said.
But all agreed that the situation has become an embarrassment.
“I think our governance and credibility is totally at stake,” said Trustee Torey Alston.
Montgomery frequently denied Mangum’s requests to address individual allegations, saying he was following Robert’s Rules of Order in allowing all the trustees to precede her.
Graham, who challenged the board for taking a vote of such consequence without a public hearing, objected to Montgomery’s tactics.
“If you cut me off, you’re cutting off thousands of stakeholders of this university,” she told him.
At the Capitol, state Rep. Alan Williams, a Tallahassee Democrat and FAMU alumnus, said the university community is fed up.
“Folks are starting to get frustrated and tired of not only the brand of FAMU being tarnished, I think they are getting tired of the efforts and the work of the chair and others on the board of trustees,” said Williams, a Mangum supporter. “Maybe if they are frustrated, maybe they should decide to do something else.”
Williams and other Democratic lawmakers have tried to come to Mangum’s aid against Montgomery, a Republican lobbyist appointed by Scott.
After the two failed votes, the board agreed to wait for the results of an external review to be delivered to its audit committee.
But fallout from the meeting is likely to be far-reaching. In her memo, Mangum called the allegations “baseless” and said they had created a “difficult work environment. … They also, in my opinion, constitute an overreach by the board into the operational side of the university.”
She also noted that to her knowledge, she is the only FAMU president required to have weekly three-hour meetings with the board chairman and to provide monthly progress reports to the board.
“I am the first and only president to have been subjected to this level of micromanagement, surveillance and control,” she wrote. “The environment is neither conducive nor enabling for success.”
Several trustees said they objected to the tone of her memo.
The News Service of Florida’s Margie Menzel contributed to this report.