Elmira Mangum Can’t Lose, But FAMU Already Has

For weeks, everyone in the orbit of the Florida A&M University Board of Trustees created a vacuum of theory surrounding the future of university president, Elmira Mangum. Between the lines, among tea leaves, in the papers, around town and all over HBCU social media all led up to an aura of inevitability in this morning’s meeting.

And for a while, the anticipated heartbreak seemed destined to make the 2:00 golden hour for network news packaging. After hours of divided public commentary from faculty, alumni and students, a vote that named Dr. Mangum’s chief adversary as the new chair of a newly constructed board, the time for discussion on her contract finally came.

And then it went. With no action. Unanimously.

Trustees will, at some point, decide about the direction of Florida A&M. The backdrop to that decision will be nearly two years of contention which has surrounded everything from Dr. Mangum’s salary, to her hiring choices, her political networking and policy decision-making, her communication with board members, and relations with faculty and students.

The future following that decision will be a collection of questions on how FAMU will navigate the political and marketing fallout, and maintenance of Dr. Mangum’s successful oversight of increases in fundraising, research and development, and improvement of student outcomes.

But in the present, there appears no good outcome for the FAMU BOT to emerge as knowledgeable, trustworthy and strategic in its handling of Dr. Mangum’s employment.

If they fire her, they go against the wishes of thousands of students who are enjoying their FAMU experience, alumni who today donated more than $700,000 in support of the university’s mission, and the hundreds external stakeholders who appreciate her as an institutional change agent.

They will speed towards the sad inevitability that very few qualified presidential candidates will embrace the board and its plague-like meddling. They will likely spend a lot of money on a search firm to fish through a shallow pool of candidates, and be faced with new executive hiring rules from the Florida Board of Governors which will avoid what the university really needs – a former or current president with a record of long-term experience, whom has an appreciation for program development and intimate connections with Tallahassee and FAMU culture.

If they keep her, they go against the wishes of other key stakeholders, like President Emeritus Frederick Humphries, who wield continual influence and reverence from board members, legislators and community members.

They will wind up paying more money to a president whom they’ve tried for two straight years to get out of paying, and keep a relationship that has, seemingly, changed the composition of the board itself through resignations and new appointments.

And most of all, it will show state lawmakers and higher ed officials more proof of what they already know; if Dr. Mangum is a good president, then the board has no clue about how to assess her skill outside of personal grievances and ego.

So the board prolonged its self-inflicted Catch 22 with a punt to September, when members say they will be better apprised of Dr. Mangum’s performance to decide which form of public revolt best suits FAMU’s survival imperative.

She remains both presidential and in peril; and with no action from the board, she remains positioned to make decisions which will either cement her place in FAMU history as a fighter who overcame board incompetence to achieve greatness, or will empower a dismissal effort two years in the making.

After today, every move from the board is too late, underinformed, and tinged with personal bias. Dr. Mangum can’t lose; she either becomes the tragic hero in an epic of HBCU board ignorance, or as the stalwart who survived the same.

But now or later, FAMU loses. And it will be a while until we all figure out when, and how, the university will start winning.

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